Behind the scenes at Parasol: Tahoe AmeriCorps program turns 15
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — For more than a decade, Incline Village has hosted a revolving crew of volunteers who work tireless hours to bolster the community’s already-impressive nonprofit portfolio.
Well, perhaps “work” isn’t the right word.
“They’re volunteering and serving the community … to make it a better place,” said Allison Eybel, Parasol AmeriCorps program director.
This summer, the program will enter its 15th year, a milestone that wouldn’t be possible without the Parasol Tahoe Community Foundation’s unflinching backbone of support — and the work of AmeriCorps Program directors in years past and present.
During a recent sit-down in the board room of the DWR Center, Eybel, who’s held the position of AmeriCorps program director since 2008, was asked to explain, in lay terms, what she does.
“I run the grant. I write it, I manage it, I report for it,” she said. “My life is the grant that, in turn, funds the annual program.”
Each year, Eybel spends countless hours preparing and submitting for the federal grant, reviewing applications from prospective agencies or nonprofits — those selected to receive a volunteer are deemed “host sites” — to vet them for value and contributions to the nonprofit community.
Host sites must have good supervision in order to correctly foster a volunteer — and, of course, have enough “work” for him or her to do, Eybel said.
“It’s a year-long thing, and the whole goal is to build capacity at the agency, so something can be sustained,” said Eybel, a Minnesota native and graduate of the University of Wisconsin.
Recruitment begins in April for the 2014-15 program, and with work to get funding by June in time for a September class induction, it’s a tireless process, one requiring a special blend of dedication, passion and commitment.
Eybel definitely is up to the challenge, said Parasol CEO Claudia Andersen.
“Her style of mentoring and the thought she puts into an enrichment experience, the thought process is really important,” Andersen said. “I’ve watched her work with seasoned nonprofit professionals at a young age and get their respect. That allows her to help them grow their organization and utilize this human resource so much more effectively.”
As an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Tahoe Rim Trail Association in 2008, Eybel knows a thing or two about how to best utilize that human resource.
“I have four site supervisors who are former AmeriCorps members,” Eybel said. “That’s really the best part of the whole job, talking with members about what they want to do with their future, giving them the training, connecting them with community members and helping them take on these roles.”
One of those supervisors is Karli Epstein. Her experience as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2009 for Project MANA led to full-time employment with the Northern Nevada chapter of the American Red Cross, where she currently serves as development director.
With the Incline branch of the Red Cross being one of 15 nonprofits housed in the DWR Center, Epstein has had an up-close view of how the AmeriCorps program and Parasol have evolved the past five years.
“Absolutely, the greatest things about AmeriCorps and Parasol is you get to see all the nonprofits working together,” said Epstein, a Brookfield, Mass., native.
FOSTERING COMMUNITY SUPPORT
The AmeriCorps program was created under President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1993 by the National and Community Service Trust Act. The act incorporates VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).
A third division, AmeriCorps State and National, provides grants to hundreds of local community organizations throughout the U.S. AmeriCorps engages more than 80,000 Americans each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies and community and faith-based groups across the country.
The Lake Tahoe program has become quite popular, as evidenced by the more than 1,000 applications it received in 2013.
“We run a really strong program. We have extremely high recruitment and retention, and we build such a cohesive family because we have a home base at Parasol for team meetings, trainings and professional development,” Eybel said.
And “home” is the key word. Epstein said she remembers one of her first days in Incline five years ago. She went to Raley’s wearing her AmeriCorps T-shirt, and a woman came up to her and said, “we’re so happy that you’re here,’” Epstein recalled.
“Coming from 3,000 miles away, for that to happen, it automatically made me feel a part of the community,” she said.
GROWTH IN THE SCHOOLS
After a few years of not being in the public schools, a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer began to serve in 2012 at Incline Elementary to grow its science program, a position that was renewed in 2013. Growth continued with the introduction of a literacy position at the elementary school last year.
“The results there have been gratifying — we’ve seen a positive improvement,” Eybel said. “We’re encouraging kids to read and help with reading clubs and after-school programs.”
Funding for both positions happens through the federal grant, Parasol and the school’s Parent Teacher Association.
Eric Harssema is a teacher at Incline Elementary School who knows first-hand the benefits of the science program — after all, he’s a Parasol AmeriCorps alumnus from 2003 at Incline Middle School, where he mostly worked with the English as a Second Language program.
He became a teacher at IES soon after, and since has helped develop the school-wide science and outdoor education program — which includes a science lab with supplies for students and teachers to use — that continues to be aided by an AmeriCorps volunteer, under Harssema’s oversight.
“I consider my AmeriCorps service 10 years ago to be one of the most important and rewarding experiences in my life,” Harssema said. “I met so many wonderful people and I realized the potential an individual has in making positive change within a community.”
This year, the 16 AmeriCorps volunteers are serving at the following host sites: American Red Cross; Incline Elementary School; IVGID Senior Programs; IVGID Youth, Teen, and Family; IVIGD Waste Not; Project MANA; Tahoe Institute for Natural Science; Tahoe Rim Trail Association; Tahoe SAFE Alliance; Tahoe’s Connection For Families; and UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.
The key to it all, Eybel explained, is sustainability.
“We make sure we are building positions that have sustainability — that role has to be taken over eventually by staff,” she said.
And the trickle-down effect of AmeriCorps volunteers’ work explains just how important the program is to the community.
The volunteers come to Incline from all parts of the country and dedicate a year of their lives to increasing local nonprofit capacity by improving existing programs and creating new ones, developing relationships through effective outreach and recruiting new volunteers.
The 2012-13 team made such an impact that it received national recognition. The Corporation for National and Community Service selected its two-day service project at Incline Elementary — “IES Rocks! A Day of Dirt, Service and Community” — for the 2013 National Service Impact Award for Environmental Stewardship.
This year, volunteers will pair with IMS to conduct a “Unity Project.” The members will work directly with students on Fridays for eight weeks from the first week of April through the first week of June.
The goal is to cultivate a trusting relationship among students, teachers and AmeriCorps volunteers that will aid in the transition to high school, ultimately creating a greater sense of community throughout the youth of Incline.
‘ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE’
With all that success in mind, Eybel was asked what would happen if Incline Village did not have an AmeriCorps program.
Her response was immediate: “If AmeriCorps had to go away, it would hurt the community.”
Life is a busy one these days for Eybel, who’s taking classes at Sierra Nevada College to get her K-12 teaching credential, with an eventual goal of earning a master’s degree in teaching.
In her free time, she and her husband love to ski and enjoy all the outdoor recreation activities they can handle at Lake Tahoe with their two 2-year-old border collie labradors, Charles and Liberty.
And while improving the AmeriCorps program is a never-ending task, Andersen and Eybel said the positive impact on the community and members is the most important part of the experience.
As Harssema puts it, “Collaboration, problem solving and outside-the box-thinking are hallmarks of AmeriCorps, and the result is a belief that all things are possible.”