Corps Story: AmeriCorps Members Teach Outdoor Recreation Skills in Minnesota
For Great Outdoors Month, we’re highlighting stories of how Service and Conservation Corps help expand access to public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities.
In 2020 alone, Service and Conservation Corps built or restored over 12,000 miles of trail and improved more than 1,200 community spaces. It is common for Corps to partner with land management agencies to maintain outdoor recreation infrastructure. In the Midwest, Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa not only partners with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) to maintain parks, but to teach outdoor recreation skills.
Launched by MNDNR over a decade ago, I Can! is an outdoor skills training program for beginners. Through free or low-cost summer workshops hosted at state parks across Minnesota, families have the opportunity to borrow gear and learn the basics of activities like mountain biking, fishing, hiking and archery. Since the launch of the I Can! program, AmeriCorps members from Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa have led I Can Camp! and I Can Paddle! classes.
A central part of the Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa vision is “A world where everyone has equitable access to nature.” This aligns closely with the purpose of the I Can! workshops. When surveys found that state park visitors in Minnesota were primarily white and older, MNDNR launched the I Can! program to address barriers to the outdoors and introduce a broader audience to park activities.
“These surveys asked people what their barriers were. There was a lot of fear of the unknown, not having access to equipment, not knowing where to start, not knowing where to go,” said Nick Cox, Youth Outdoors Program Manager at Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa. “I think there’s a recognition that these spaces are pretty exclusionary in a lot of ways. The I Can Camp! program in particular seems to open up state parks to groups that have not been out there as much. We think that working towards making the outdoors more welcoming, more inclusive, and more accessible is important.”
There are eight AmeriCorps members leading I Can Camp! and I Can Paddle! programs this summer. The members will rotate and work in pairs to lead four concurrent workshops across the state on any given weekend.
In previous summers, the AmeriCorps members have engaged with around 1,000 participants through I Can Camp! and 500 participants through the I Can Paddle! workshops. The camping workshops last for one or two nights, while the paddling workshops are two hours long. The AmeriCorps members will also teach 90-minute “mini workshops” in camping skills.
“Working as a recreation instructor is an incredibly rewarding experience and has allowed me to do what I love most: showing people all that nature has to offer, while working outdoors,” said Sammy Borzick, a current AmeriCorps member with Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa’s Outdoor Recreation Crew. “Teaching camping to first-timers can be challenging at first, but by the end of workshops, I find that most participants feel more safe and comfortable camping and are inspired to go out and explore more Minnesota state parks. A big part of outdoor education is being flexible and open to learning new things from both my co-workers and participants.”
To teach the I Can! workshops, the AmeriCorps members undergo training with both Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa and MNDNR. They learn basic front-country camping skills – like how to set up a tent, start a fire, and cook outdoors – as well as water rescue skills and canoe and kayak strokes. Additionally, members learn how to provide environmental education and naturalist interpretative programming. This summer, the AmeriCorps members will also teach basic backpacking skills, like how to hang a bear bag and practice proper backcountry hygiene.
Perhaps more important than the outdoor skills the AmeriCorps members learn are the risk management and group dynamics lessons they receive. It’s also important that the members bring a passion for educating.
“We’ve had well over 100 AmeriCorps members teach the I Can! workshops at this point. There are some who have outdoor or formal leadership experience, but certainly a lot that don’t,” said Nick. “When we’re recruiting, we’re not filtering out for folks that have that experience. We are more interested in folks that are really interested in teaching and fostering these connections. We’re a firm believer that we can teach them the skills they need in order to teach [the workshops], but that passion to teach or the ability to work with groups is a little bit harder for us to train, so that’s what we’re looking for in candidates.”
Sammy Borzick, a Sustainability Science and Society major at Michigan Technological University, joined the Outdoor Recreation Crew to help spread her passion for the outdoors.
“I was inspired to join this program because it not only teaches camping skills to the public, but also helps grow an appreciation for the outdoors,” said Sammy. “As a recreation instructor I’ve learned to become a better environmental educator, and I hope that through this program, the public will be inspired to become stewards of nature.”
With COVID-19, the I Can! program has undergone changes. No workshops were held in 2020. For 2021, the camping groups are smaller and will be spaced out. The paddling workshops will only happen on lakes to avoid shuttling people to launch points for river paddling. With interest in outdoor activities on the rise during the pandemic, the Corps expects a busy summer for the I Can! program. They are excited to continue providing Minnesota families with welcoming and accessible outdoor experiences.
“There’s a deep-seated desire to protect the environment and not only have camping and paddling opportunities for all of us, but for generations to come,” said Nick. “[By providing] a way to get folks out to have positive experiences outside and build those connections in whatever way they want to make their own connections, there will be more people out enjoying and protecting these spaces.”