member development

Learning to Swim in the Deep End of the Pool


by Clare Holdinghaus This weekend I helped a friend build a table out of some old pallets. As we were cutting the pallet with a reciprocating saw, the blade broke off. We had no replacement. We had no other knives, saws, or power tools capable of finishing the job. So we got two vice grips, clamped one on either end of the broken blade, and made a jury-rigged cross cut saw. Between the three of us we hand-sawed through the remaining pallet planks and finished the table.

It was a little thing, but I was proud of us. Being able to finish the job even without the tools “necessary” showed just how far I had come in my capacity for problem solving. We face challenges like this every day in AmeriCorps St. Louis: How do you finish felling a tree when your saw breaks down? How do you organize and communicate time-sensitive data on a disaster with no internet capability? How do you get a truck out of a ditch without winches or tow-straps? Two years of being put in situations requiring real-life problem solving to meet critical needs has given me the confidence and the creative mindset to tackle these problems head on.

The day-to-day challenges we face in AmeriCorps St. Louis are real, and carry much more at stake than merely completing a table. The real-world needs we are asked to address – providing services on the front line for disaster survivors, homeless men and women, and eco-systems in crisis – take the option for failure off the table. And it is being put in this position that brings out the best in our abilities. Sometimes I feel it’s like being thrown in the deep end of the pool and told to learn how to swim. There are people who wouldn't risk it for fear of drowning. There are some that think that taking that risk is something no one should be asked to do. But year after year we’re thrown in the deep end. Year after year, we swim. Year after year, I see Corps Members come in looking for guidance, and leaving with an ability to lead.

Chainsawing: A Love Story (Or Lack Thereof)


by Zoe Jennings It is easy to get pigeonholed into one field after graduating college. After majoring in journalism, I have ended up the communications person at most of my jobs and internships -- if you are a non-profit, I am the one to manage your struggling Facebook page, to edit grant applications, to throw together a promo video. Along the same lines, I have been typecast as an office person, and I have learned to think of myself as such: I struggle with machinery; I am “little,” never the person you would ask to carry one end of a couch; I have never done conservation, not even trail maintenance.

When I got into the thick of conservation and began using the chainsaw in October, I faced a kind of thinking and moving that didn't come intuitively. I would forget which hand was supposed to press the trigger and which was supposed to hold the handle of the chainsaw; could barely extend my fingers far enough to hit the chain brake, a safety precaution that keeps the chain from spinning unintentionally; and sounded unnatural when I gave a warning shout that a tree was falling, almost like a little kid impersonating an adult. In the months that followed, my progress was slow, almost imperceptible. Team leaders would show me how to hold the saw, where to put this foot and that foot, what to look out for. I would do what 4 years of reporting projects had taught me and ask clarifying questions. I would nod, yes, I get it, that looks easy. But then, when it was it was my turn to put the saw to the tree, I couldn't translate the instructions I had been given into my own movement. All I saw was a chain I had been warned could cut my leg off and a rock-solid tree that I couldn’t imagine being any other way. Again and again, I asked members around me if they liked chainsawing, and when they almost invariably answered yes, I asked why. It’s a challenge, they said. It’s like a puzzle, figuring out where a tree will fall and where to cut.

Finally, this month, I got it. After so many failed cuts, my chain raced through the front of the tree for the perfect initial cut. My second cut was messier and more pained, but, minutes later, my tree fell exactly where I had intended it to.

For me, this is the real beauty of ERT: for those of us who we are too small or inexperienced or too fitted for an office, it gives us the opportunity to explore our physical potential. In these painstaking five months, I have pushed through what felt like incompetence and learned that I am stronger and more resolute than I had thought.