My VISTA Transition Letter

To the next AmeriCorps VISTA serving Missouri River Relief

From Laura Waldo-Semken, the outgoing AmeriCorps VISTA


Dear next AmeriCorps VISTA,

Your task is to work to eliminate poverty. Or work to ensure environmental sustainability, one of the 8 United Nations Millennium Goals to end poverty.

Your mission is to strengthen organizations that eliminate or alleviate poverty through mobilization of community volunteers and resources. You will get to establish systems and develop community relationships to better generate resources, encourage volunteer service at the local level and empower individuals and communities to lift themselves out of poverty.

Your vision will be unique. My favorite saying is that if you think you are too small to make a difference, then you have never slept with a mosquito.

I hope your year is just as rewarding as mine. I got to strengthen and transform my “I got this!” attitude into a stronger “We can do this together!” tornado of earth energy. Thank you, John Brady!

I Got This! “Helping” my family portage in the boundary waters, 1977
We Can Do This Together! My first group haul during the Jefferson City clean-up on the Missouri River. October, 2019

What a year! First, I have to gush over how much I appreciate being welcomed into the Missouri River Relief family. This group is generous, kind, and helpful always. Know that you are supported! They are exemplary examples of the universal value of being kind to others, valuing purpose and always being helpful in the goal of building community.

Here is my “thank you” gift: I tweaked a song just for my river family: Drift Away

Oh, give me a boat friends and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock ‘n’ roll and drift away…

And when my mind is free
You know a river song can move me
And when I’m feelin’ blue
Big Muddy’s comin’ through to soothe me

Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
And rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You help me along, makin’ me strong

…Oh Big Muddy won’t you take me away!!

My year spent with Missouri River Relief helped develop my understanding of community and the joy of working together to get it done. It also helped me remember and re-experience my childlike unbounded energy. This energy comes from the umbilical cord of joy that connects all children to life. And then awareness happens and tragedies strike and as adults there are many hazards to navigate. It can wear you down to nothing. Like fragments of shells that slowly turn to fossils, my year at Missouri River Relief has helped galvanize my character and reconnect me to joy. I have always bitten off more than I can chew as you can see from the “I got this!” photo of me just itchin’ to carry the Duluth packs. I am having so much fun. Myself as a child is a beautiful thing. But as an adult I have learned that it is even more joyful, more rewarding to allow others to come together with a common purpose. I love being with a group of people that all want to tackle the trash, that share ideas for ways to solve a problem and can work together as a team to get it done!

Teaching my Missouri friends how we do it in Iowa. My Iowa friends taught me how to balance refrigerators on canoes! April, 2020

See a boat washed up into a tree? Let’s push it out and then come back with a huge saw and cut it up and get it out of our river! The sweat of 6 people and the support of an entire community helped make this project possible.

Sawing up a boat during the Hartsburg clean-up on the Missouri River. June, 2020

Tornado blows enormous amounts of Styrofoam everywhere? Let’s go get it! An entire community hauled out 176 large chunks of Styrofoam during the Jefferson City clean-up in just one morning!

Jefferson City Styrofoam haul. October, 2019

In my opinion, the common purpose of cleaning up our rivers is the most rewarding of all. There are many issues that threaten the integrity of our rivers and therefore the integrity of our communities. Everyone can agree that pollution in our rivers is not good. It is relatively easy to pick up trash. The hard thing is slowing down the faucet of trash with waste reduction strategies. The hardest thing is finding alternatives to plastic; and encouraging corporations to find alternatives to plastic. Shale gas is being extracted to create overwhelming amounts of single use plastic products that are choking the earth. In addition, the process of extracting the gas and creating the plastic is polluting the air of many marginalized communities. It also exacerbates the climate crisis. The issue of plastic pollution is an issue of justice. Bringing folks to the river to experience the current pollution crisis can help build a community of folks that can communicate about this crisis, bringing awareness to more and more folks.

So with this challenge coupled with the mission of connecting the community to the Missouri River, you will never be bored!

Be prepared to lean into your comfort zone and be a little uncomfortable. This happened to me when I was asked to film myself and begin creating videos. I had zero desire to create videos of myself. But I have a talent for teaching and the River Relief staff encouraged me to express this talent for the good of the community. Turns out I had a blast writing, gathering props, acting, learning how to edit and producing a final product. It is a form of creativity. I still don’t like to see myself in the videos but I have to admit I am a little bit odd and therefore could be perceived as entertaining. If you would like to view some of them, subscribe to the Missouri River Relief Youtube channel.

I was also asked early on if I liked to write. I said no, not really. But I found out that I do like to communicate and writing is a cutting-edge tool for getting the job done.

AmeriCorps VISTA highlights:

  • Wrote, starred, directed and created 4 videos. To watch, click each link separately:
  • Learned how to make videos in Powerpoint. You get to learn Filmora. Good Luck!
  • Created watershed activities with maps for Jefferson City, Flat Branch Creek and Boone County.
  • Created a Powerpoint presentation titled Reducing your Plastic Footprint plus activities.
  • Created a database of potential business donors for the Youth Scholarship Fund to help youth participate in our education events and camps. Received 2 donations.
  • Applied for 3 grants. Succeeded at 2 grants.
  • Facilitated and created watershed games for Watershed Expeditions, our new online camp that reached over 60 campers!
  • Partnered with Stormwater Education program in Columbia Missouri to create a watershed camp.
  • Coordinated 7 volunteers to distribute 200 Missouri River workbooks to 32 Little Free Libraries in Columbia, Washington and Jefferson City.
  • Put a bow on the Missouri River All Stars curriculum.
  • Created Trash Mob promotions to keep small groups involved with cleaning up our watershed.
  • Created a Program Request web update.
  • Learned how to create and schedule Facebook posts to help keep our river family connected.
  • Participated in 2 Missouri River Relief clean-ups.
  • MRR meets MLS- created a table of Missouri River curriculum ideas that could meet Missouri Learning Standards. I enjoy making connections!
  • Served at the Central Pantry and helped develop a new food distribution model during COVID.
  • Participated in health monitoring for people experiencing homelessness with Mike Trapp and the CoMo Crisis Shelter.

Other highlights of my year:

I spent a lot of my free time picking up trash on the Hinkson, Flat Branch or Perche creek, sometimes alone and sometimes with one friend. With the help of Shawn, or Kevin, or Elke, or David Owen we picked up 99 tires and 3.04 tons of trash. Because of the network of people already involved in Missouri River Relief I was also able to help organize larger trash clean ups or “Trash Mobs” in my free time. Organizing opportunities for people to come together for the benefit of the community is so rewarding!

Jaron’s first tire…I had so much fun encouraging his diggning! June, 2020

I wanted to bring awareness to the plastic crisis in our own community and how pollution adversely affects our community. I also wanted to help mobilize volunteers.  All of these things are part of the VISTA mission. I got involved with 10 trash mobs (minimum of 3 participants) with 59 folks participating. We picked up an additional 39 tires and 1.65 tons of trash. Watching Elke Bettina organize the Hinkson clean ups inspired me and gave me the confidence to organize some too!

Shopping for treasures on the Hinkson with Kevin. March, 2020
Preparing to haul a luxury toy car out of the Hinkson with Elke, David, Kevin and Donna. April, 2020

Resource Mapping to help shape your capacity building strategy:

This trash mob experience was very empowering for me; it brought me hope and joy to feel supported by others who also care about our rivers. It also helped me get to know the creeks of Columbia and Jody Cook, the volunteer coordinator for the City of Columbia. She is a wonderful ally. You see, I noticed right away that Columbia had a lot of litter, especially after trash day. Columbia has a unique trash pick-up system where you put out a bag of trash (no trash cans allowed), raccoons rip it open, and then the city cannot pick it up and it is left to pollute the Missouri River watershed. I decided to participate in city organized clean ups to learn more about this issue. Jody was always there to answer my questions and support my ideas about stewardship action in our community that would benefit our watershed. The Trash Mobs were the perfect way to begin this awareness work during COVID.

In my free time I also attended a Black Lives Matter march and listened to community and religious leaders speak about race and justice in Columbia. I learned about Missouri Faith Voices. This is a powerful community organization that is working to end poverty. If you want to collaborate, I would highly recommend this organization!

Getting to know community leaders that work for social, economic, and environmental justice contributed to my overall experience and helped me map resources within the community which is part of being an AmeriCorps VISTA.  Resource mapping is a very important first step to building the capacity within your organization to build a more just society. This is what AmeriCorps is all about!

Your title with River Relief is education assistant and your title with the VISTA program is Stream Teams United Development Coordinator. Balancing these two titles was a wonderful challenge. Have a plan, a form, a shape. But let the shape be like sand. Allow ideas from unexpected sources fertilize your mind, allowing the sand to shift and create a new shape. Develop ideas and record them for the future but understand that you may not get to bring life to those ideas. Know that when you are contributing to an organization, your ideas are like gold. And working to bring fruition to ideas of others is also golden.

Missouri River Relief develops and provides both science education and environmental education. I was asked by friends to elaborate on the difference so I thought I would share it here. Environmental education shares many of the same goals as science education. Science education helps students ask questions based on past research and to further develop questions based on observations. In the process students can increase their knowledge and awareness about the environment. Students also practice thinking critically which is a prerequisite for being able to discuss challenging environmental issues.  Environmental Education is a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action. (UNESCO, 1978) EE at its finest develops moral character. But this is very challenging to do!  Ethical Expertise is a skills-based approach to helping youth develop ethically (Narvaez, 2009). My friend Dr. Chris McCart developed a game called character development bingo and it succinctly helps organizations reflect on ways to improve their EE goals by giving examples from the ethical expertise model. Sensitivity or “I notice” is easy. Judgement or thinking is a little trickier but it just involves allowing kids to elaborate on an ethical drama. Motivation is also pretty easy to tackle. An example would be teaching skills that support later independent exploration of the outdoors. The most challenging is Action (skills to make informed decisions)because it is sometimes confused with advocacy (which involves influencing others to create specific policies). Following the definition of EE, action does not include advocacy. Examples include mentoring youth in service-learning or community service projects or supporting local community development projects. This is where I see the AmeriCorps position as potentially being able to grow because EE action goals dovetail with the mission of VISTA.

As a VISTA, you will get to create education programs and coordinate volunteers to address a poverty issue that is meaningful to that community. Healthy watersheds create healthy communities but how is this idea relevant to kids in Title 1 schools? My idea that I want to pass on to you is the BASP Watershed Winners program. If this seems like something you and the organization is interested in, my advice would then be to ask Michele Woolbright (stormwater educator for Boone County) and Jody Cook and the good folks of Missouri Faith Voices for input about how to make it relevant. Get input from as many leaders as possible. Then partner with Title 1 schools, UM after school program and watershed educators from Master Naturalists to create an awesome environmental education after-school program that is free. And if you want to get some grants follow the Waste Reduction Education path.

Another idea would be to incorporate organizing and mobilizing volunteers for “Trash Mobs” into your VISTA job. Again reach out and partner with others and engage with students from Title 1 schools.

You too will have your unique voice full of wonderful ideas to share with the group that can help build the capacity of this awesome organization to create wealthier communities through healthy watersheds. I look forward to following your journey as the next AmeriCorps VISTA for Missouri River Relief.

Bye for now and good luck!

Sharing the sunrise with my Big Muddy Princess. June, 2020

P.S. For my blog followers: My next journey takes me back to Iowa as the newest Louisa County naturalist. Stay tuned for more ponderings and adventures from the river county!

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