The Teton County Department of Health received a staff boost this year from two AmeriCorps volunteers, stationed here for six months from spring to fall as part of the Communities in Action program, based in Richland County.
Lucas Rodriguez, 21, of El Paso, Texas, and Aden Vermeersch, 26, of Kentucky, arrived in Choteau this spring to help the Department of Health in any way they needed.
Teton County Department of Health Director Melissa Moyer said the two volunteers came to Choteau as part of the Communities in Action program, initially offered in Richland County and being rolled out across the country. State.
Moyer heard about the program through his service on the Association of Montana’s council of public health officials and jumped at the opportunity to put Teton County on the pilot program.
“We were really lucky to be able to attract these volunteers from AmeriCorps to the start of the Teton County Public Health Department,” she said.
The Department of Health – even when not facing a pandemic – has always been a bit under-staffed for the tasks it has, Moyer said. The two volunteers gave the department the extra manpower to tackle both pandemic-related tasks and other projects, she said.
Moyer tasked Vermeersch to work on the COVID-19 vaccination efforts and Rodriguez to work on completing the tasks set out in the new Teton County Community Health Needs Assessment and Plan.
Richland County used $ 8,000 in grants because Teton County was a pilot program to cover allowances and volunteer expenses. If the county continues to participate in the years to come, it will have to pay the $ 8,000. The county also provides volunteers with offices, a telephone, a computer, supervision and assistance.
Although finding accommodation in Choteau is a challenge, Moyer said the Department of Health was fortunate that Choteau residents, Connie and Sherwin Smith, provided a guesthouse for the volunteers, who receive a stipend. monthly for living expenses but do not earn a salary.
Moyer said she hopes to be able to welcome volunteers from AmeriCorps in the future. “It’s fun and refreshing to have new energy in the community,” she said.
AmeriCorps is a federal program that places more than 270,000 volunteers in organizations across the country. The agency’s mission is “to improve lives, strengthen communities and foster civic engagement through service and volunteerism.” To support the placement of AmeriCorps volunteers in communities, the organization provides more than $ 800 million in grants each year and partners with more than 2,000 organizations.
AmeriCorps volunteers work in education, disaster response, community health, economic opportunities, environmental stewardship, and with veterans and military families. The agency’s budget for fiscal year 2021 was $ 1.1 billion.
The minimum age for volunteers in most programs is 18. The program provides volunteers with a living allowance and scholarship to pay for college or trade school expenses, or to repay qualified student loans. It also offers student loan deferral and interest forgiveness on qualifying student loans during service, professional development, an alumni network and more.
Communities in Action AmeriCorps Director Stephanie Reynolds, of the Richland County Health Department in Sidney, said in an interview that she has involved AmeriCorps volunteers in the County Community Action Plan. Richland in 2014.
Richland County Communities in Action has been in place since 2006, working through action groups to meet community needs and build a healthy community. The organization was born out of the Richland County Department of Health’s collaboration with the City / County Planning Council and other agencies to assess local needs and develop an action plan to assist with housing, lifelong learning, physical activity, opportunities for young people, health of the elderly. , health education and chronic disease management, natural resources, recycling, injury prevention and public safety.
A former AmeriCorps volunteer, Reynolds served in a boys and girls club in Utah. “I just fell in love with the job he does and the opportunity to serve,” she said. This experience led her to the position in Sidney where she now oversees the program and recruits volunteers from AmeriCorps to help with public health and mental health in a program that is growing statewide.
She started with volunteers in Richland County, then expanded the program to 17 counties in eastern Montana. The county received an AmeriCorps grant through the governor’s office of community service in 2014 to begin recruiting volunteers.
Teton County was one of the first counties outside of eastern Montana to be involved in the pilot expansion, Reynolds said, adding that 13 other counties were interested in the program.
Volunteers help each public health department meet local needs that have not been addressed due to understaffing. “They know a need has to be met, but they don’t have the staff or the funds, so bringing in a volunteer from AmeriCorps helps meet those needs,” Reynolds said.
In addition to the county public health departments, Reynolds is working with several tribal health departments to expand the program there as well.
She said she has received positive feedback from the counties where AmeriCorps volunteers are stationed and it is a testament to the quality of the volunteers, who are largely young people who give a year of their life for very little compensation for work to improve the lives of others. “It is such a sincere desire to give back, they deserve all the credit,” she said, adding that the volunteers have been particularly helpful in the health services which have just been “cut down” by the pandemic.
At Choteau, Rodriguez said he became a volunteer after graduating in December 2020 with his bachelor’s degree in public health studies and a minor in social policy.
“I really wanted to work for a local health department or a health related nonprofit, but I wasn’t very lucky. A family friend suggested I look into AmeriCorps as their office often had AmeriCorps members and thought I might be interested in the work they were doing, ”he said. “I looked through the ads online and realized that there were a lot of positions that I was excited about, so I applied.”
He said the position in Teton County “ticked a lot of my boxes for a place I wanted to be” and gave him the chance to work in person rather than remotely.
He said the experience here has taught him a lot both professionally and personally. “I learned a lot about how public health programs are run and the importance of reaching people where they are,” he said. “I’ve seen how important community buy-in is to a successful program, and how important it is to create those community bonds and not just work in a vacuum.”
On a personal level, he said, the experience was extremely eye-opening for an El Paso, Texas native who attended school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
“Choteau was a huge change for me, and it took a while to adjust, but I appreciated the opportunity to understand a whole new community of people, their culture, their norms and their way of life,” did he declare. “I think it really makes you think about the environment you grew up in and how these aren’t the same experiences everyone has had.”
Rodriguez looked at this new experience to get the most out of it. He went to the 4th of July rodeo (a whole new experience for him), participated in all of the 4th of July festivities (including the Got Grit! 5K obstacle course), embraced the outdoors and is trying to get to know and to understand people here. “I think these experiences will remain much more important to me than the new professional skills and lessons I learn,” he said.
Vermeersch graduated from Coker University in Hartsville, SC in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He plans to pursue a master’s and a doctorate in research in biology. He said he became an AmeriCorps volunteer because he believes in the importance of volunteering and working for better communities and for increasing the capacity for social and civil service.
“I think it’s useful to try to make sure that society improves on a small scale,” he said. “If you want society to change, then you have to create the framework of society that you want to move forward. If I want to make society represent something closer to my ideal, then I have to create the framework for that kind of ideal to be enduring before any kind of change happens in the culture or government around. of which it exists.
While here, Vermeersch developed her pastry skills and performed tuba in the Choteau Community Orchestra in June and July. “I love learning new things,” he said, adding that he was also working on learning Spanish, learning himself to play the tenor saxophone and experimenting with brewing kombucha and beer at the same time. ginger and sourdough sourdough making, among other baking projects.
“I firmly believe that it is important to continually learn and even to question the way you think about the world around you,” he said, “The only way to do that is to expose yourself to new ideas because it’s very, very possible that I’m wrong, and I won’t know unless I go ahead.