2016 Corpsmember of the Year: Katheryne Lewis – Montana Conservation Corps

Born in Savannah, GA to a father in the Navy, Katheryne moved a lot as a kid and spent little time enjoying the outdoors. A backpacking trip with her college rugby team gave Katheryne her first taste of the challenges and rewards of time spent outdoors. This experience inspired her to attempt a solo thru-hike of the Applachian trail after graduating from college. Given her limited knowledge of the outdoors, this may seem like a surprising decision, but Katheryne’s steadfastness and courage to put herself in new situations made this a positive choice that would change her life.

Katheryne did not complete the thru-hike, but the time she spent on the trail made a lasting impression. She returned to Virginia for a period of time to nanny, but longed for the nights when she was able to sleep under the stars. Katheryne quickly came to realize that she wanted more than an office job; she wanted to find a way to earn a living while enjoying the great outdoors. With guidance from friends, Katheryne was directed to the Corps world.

Katheryne’s first Corps experience was with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. During her term of service, she began to realize the importance of increasing the racial and ethnic diversification of wilderness management employees. Katheryne was one of only five minorities in the program and was often tasked with contributing her different personal experiences during group discussions. The realization that the majority of people working in the conservation field did not share the same ethnic background as her made the Corps experience seem all the more daring and exciting. Katheryne realized that she had an important responsibility to help break the conventional idea of who can be a trail builder or forester.

When Katheryne finished her service with VYCC, she was encouraged to enroll in Montana Conservation Corps’ (MCC) 3-month-long Leader Development Program. Katheryne soaked up everything she could learn from the training and stepped confidently into a role as a Montana Conservation Corps Youth Crew Leader for the summer of 2015. Accepting a position in a rural western state was far out of her comfort zone, but Katheryne knew she had a lot to gain, and a lot to offer.

“Being one of the few minorities in my region, and often the only minority in the field, I felt proud to be in my position…,” said Katheryne. “I was happy to show the students that wild lands really are for everyone and to reinforce the idea that more women and more minorities are needed in this field.”  

As a Youth Crew Leader for MCC, Katheryne worked in rural communities throughout Montana and Wyoming; she served as an advocate for public lands and a strong role model for youth and her fellow Corpsmembers. Katheryne talked to the youth about their future plans and challenged them to think about how their plans will impact their community. She also embraced talking about tough topics around feminism, LGBT rights, and equality. At the end of her service with MCC, Katheryne’s crewmembers thanked her for challenging them and opening their eyes to the complexity of some of the issues they discussed.  

Katheryne currently serves with AmeriCorps NCCC and hopes to one day earn her Wilderness First Responder Certification and perhaps become a wildland firefighter. Her ultimate goal, however, is to start a nonprofit to bring underserved kids to the wilderness to learn about personal growth and leadership skills. Katheryne wants to see more underserved youth and people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds out in the wilderness, helping preserve and enjoy the land.