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Service in the swamp

Every morning for the last two months, a group of nine young people rose with the sun, unzipped their individual tents pitched at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp and got ready to serve.

They traveled to wildlife refuges and conservation areas throughout Virginia and Maryland, helping federal employees conduct controlled burns to help rid the areas of invasive plant species, promote desired plants, create habitat for birds and eliminate excess wildfire fuel.

Three months ago, they were just regular people — college graduates, bartenders and financial planners. All that changed when the 18- to 25-year-olds joined the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps.

“AmeriCorps is a win-win situation for everyone,” said Nick Hagerl, 20, who left college after one semester to serve in the program. “You help people out, and it helps you.”

AmeriCorps NCCC is a 10-month program that provides young people with CPR, first aid, public safety and other skills training, and then sends them on a variety of assignments for the remainder of the program.

The nine who have been helping with controlled burns for the last two months will go on from here to help with trail maintenance in New England and serve at summer camps for at-risk children. Members of the program also have helped rebuild homes in areas of the country devastated by hurricanes and wildfire.

Mark Westermeier received a college degree in finance and worked in the business for two years before deciding he didn’t like it.

“It took me a long time to come to that conclusion,” he said. “This program is opening doors to do new things. We already have a foot into a whole new career field, and we still have seven months to go.”

Some of the young people came to the program looking for a foot in the door to a new career field. Others simply wanted to serve, and found a career field they like.

“It’s another form of service,” said David Pieknik, 23. “It improves the country’s infrastructure. I’d like to stay with this niche and take it further.”

The young people are paid a small stipend, roughly $100 a week, during their service in the program, in addition to housing, meals and limited medical benefits.

After successful completion of the program, participants can either receive an end-of-service stipend of $1,500, or choose an education award that can be used for college costs or to repay student loans.

The amount they save the federal government and other agencies they partner with is worth much more.

“They’ve saved us about $10,000 in labor costs,” said Kyle Krzywicki, who works at the Great Dismal Swamp. “They allow us to increase our productivity quite a bit.”

Krzywicki said finding enough people to carry out a controlled burn successfully is difficult without the help of AmeriCorps teams.

“Finding enough people to do a burn, just one, is difficult,” he said. “With them here, we can do multiple burns in a day.”

The Great Dismal Swamp regularly hosts AmeriCorps teams, who participate in controlled burns in the Mid-Atlantic region. The current team has managed burns in more than 1,000 acres in two states, helping to control invasive species in Soldiers Delight, Md., eliminate wildfire fuels along the James River, promote waterfowl nesting in Back Bay, and encourage growth of habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker in Piney Grove.

The young people don’t just do the work, though — an integral part of the program is knowing why they are doing something, so they obtain valuable knowledge that gives them a leg up on others.

“They’ve been an asset to us for a couple of years now,” Krzywicki said.

Members of the team will treasure their experience, they said.

“We’ve done a lot of good things,” said Alejandro Ramirez, 23, who came to America as a war refugee from Colombia. He joined because he wanted to give back after the opportunities the United States has provided him, he said.

“We’ve helped to preserve the environment for several species,” he added.

For more information on the AmeriCorps programs, visit www.americorps.gov.