AmeriCorps returns to Oakhurst

A 12-member team from AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps is spending six weeks at Sugar Pine Christian Camps north of Oakhurst, expanding fire breaks, removing vegetation, and assisting in improving recreational facilities.

The team, referred to as Blue 5, will be at the camp through mid-December and has focused primarily on forest fire prevention. The team is clearing brush and low hanging branches throughout the camp in order to reinforce firebreaks and decrease the amount of combustible vegetation. Furthermore, Blue 5 will assist in the building and refurbishing of Sugar Pine’s facilities, including construction projects in the Adventure Recreation area.

The service done by Blue 5 is particularly significant in the Oakhurst area due to wildfires the Mountain Area experienced this past summer. As a 365-acre camp that serves up to 10,000 guests annually, Sugar Pine Christian Camps is not only important to the Mountain Area economy, but to the campers that come to the facility from throughout California and beyond.

Camp staff member Joe Studendorff said having AmeriCorps at the camps is significant.

“Having these hard working young men and women at the camp will save us a lot of time and money, Studendorf said. “The brush clearing is an important task to keep the camp grounds looking wonderful as well as keeping it safe from a fire hazard that could happen here. This team comes from all over the country to perform a great community service for us.”

In addition to a lot of outdoor work, the team gave many buildings at the camp a fresh coat of paint, including the 115x30-foot dinning room. At one end of the dining room, team members are painting a mural highlighting features of the camp and the nearby Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Team member Jaq French, 23, of New York City, designed the mural - a snap for someone who has painted since she was nine years old, and has a bachelor of fine arts degree from New York University.

French joined AmeriCorps two months ago and before she knew it she was swept from the Big Apple and dropped at Sugar Pine Christian Camps in the Sierra National Forest.

Spending a large part of her life acting and singing on stage, and seriously involved in art, French is quick to explain she is “a city girl, not a nature girl ... but coming here has been an amazing experience.”

French said one of the first things the team did upon its arrival, was a 10 mile hike at Yosemite’s Glacier Point. “It was so beautiful.”

French said she joined AmeriCorps to push herself in a different direction and out of her comfort zone. She said during college she was pretty focused on herself, and joining AmeriCorps was a way to give back because so many people helped her with her place in the world. She also wants to join the Peace Corps and felt the 10 months she will spend with AmeriCorps will provide a good ‘trial run.’

“In just a short time AmeriCorps has provided me many overall skills such as work ethics, and how to be adaptable, and specific skills like how to set-up a disaster shelter,” French said.

Ashley Westpheling is the team leader - a big order for the 5-foot-3, 115 pound 22 year-old from Lawrenceville, Ga..

“being a team leader has been an incredible rewarding experience so far,” Westpheling said. “ Working with a team of 11 people has helped me realize that everyone has strengths to bring to the team and I am continually impressed by each person’s strength and ingenuity. As a team leader for AmeriCorps NCCC, I am challenged daily in ways I never imagined and I wouldno’t have it any other way. I can already say that I will come away from this experience a stronger leader, a more impassioned citizen, and a lifelong advocate of national service.”

Westpheling said she heard about the program two years ago and wanted to be a part of it.

“I come from a big military family, and this is my way to carry on the family tradition of serving our country.”

Grace Healy, 22, of Bellport, N.Y., and Curran Beithon, 18, of Northfield, Minn., serve as media representatives for the team.

Rounding out the Blue Team is Alec De Vivo, 22, of New York, N.Y. - Kestrel Peavy, 20, of San Antonio, Texas - Matthew Fisher, 22, of Olympia, Wash. - Nathan Nesslar, 18, of Madison, Wis. - Jacques Battle, 24, of Rocky Mount, N.C. - Hannah Smith, 18, of Baltimore, Md. - Mel Mede, 22, State College, Penn. - and Tristin Young, 18, of Denver, Co.

AmeriCorps is not new to the Mountain Area. About 20 years ago, Allison Peeler, then Sierra Nevada AmeriCorps Partnership Regional Coordinator, made arrangements for a team to help build the three-mile Oakhurst River Parkway trail. Four years ago, a team assisted Sugar Pine Camp after a large storm damaged buildings, electrical lines, telephone lines, and left roads blocked by fallen trees.

About two years ago, a 35-member team worked on the River Parkway trail, weed eating, replacing small logs lining the walkway, and improving drainage where needed.

Upon completion of the program, AmeriCorps team members receive a $5,000 education award.

Sugar Pine Christian Camp’s mission is to “Impact lives for Christ through exceptional camping experiences.” Those served include regional churches, public and private schools and colleges, civic and social welfare organizations, and corporations.

The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), and its FEMA Corps units engage 2,800 young Americans in a full-time service each year.