Veterans respond to COVID-19 in their communities through AmeriCorps.
Earlier this week, AmeriCorps CEO Barbara Stewart held a video conference with veteran AmeriCorps members to learn about their service with Washington Vet Corps and the Mt. Adams Institute in Washington. Whether continuing their service to our country on college campuses or public lands, the veterans serving in AmeriCorps have adapted to the changes caused by COVID-19.
After serving in the military, many veterans wish to pursue a degree but need guidance navigating the resources and programs meant to help them achieve their higher education goals. The Washington Vet Corps enlists AmeriCorps members to serve as peer mentors and counselors to veterans in colleges and universities across Washington state. These AmeriCorps members provide training to help institutions meet the needs of their veteran students and directly support veterans new to higher education through peer connections and direction to available benefits.
Eric Burns, a former combat medic in the US Army and current AmeriCorps member, originally joined the Vet Corps program while pursuing his master’s degree and deemed it “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.” In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eric noted that it has been challenging to connect with the community while virtual, but he’s worked to remedy this barrier with events such as a virtual Veteran’s Day celebration for veterans and their families.
Another AmeriCorps member, former Army Combat Engineer Trent Mortensen, shifted his focus to rural outreach after the pandemic hit. Through the transition from in person to a virtual space, Mortensen noted that he’s reaching people who wouldn’t have otherwise had access. Reflecting on his own experience after leaving the military, Mortensen notes that being “able to push [veterans] to resources that I never had” has been a “big motivation factor.”
The Mt. Adams Institute, another AmeriCorps program in Washington, provides veterans with apprenticeship opportunities focused on improving public lands and managing their natural resources. There are multiple programs for veterans to choose from, ranging from natural resource management to wildland firefighting. Veterans often acquire unique skills during their service, and Mt. Adams Institute provides the opportunity to use and expand upon those abilities.
Most alluring for some is the chance to continue service to the public. Jon Knepper, Marine Corps veteran, explained that he “struggled with finding a sense of fulfillment” upon discharge. The Mt. Adams Institute allowed him to do work that made an impact on the world around him., As part of his service, Knepper worked on a community garden to provide the surrounding area with access to fresh food. In the face of Covid-19, he hopes that it can help anyone struggling with food insecurity as well as reduce the need for trips to markets in more populated areas.
For many veterans, AmeriCorps programs have served as both a launchpad to future goals and as a tangible career path. With the guidance of his program supervisor, former Navy intelligence analyst Hunter Haley applied and was accepted to Portland State University’s Environmental Science Program. Both Trent Mortensen and Eric Burns hope to continue their service in AmeriCorps as regional coordinators. Channette Purser-Smith, current North Seattle College student, credits Washington Vet Corps with helping her stay in school, going on to state that “being in the program really helped me succeed.”
For veterans looking to continue their service, AmeriCorps programs not only offer the chance to complete meaningful work, while gaining valuable resources and experiences for the future.