Corps Story: From Weatherization to Trails Projects, The Sustainability Institute Serves Charleston in Different Ways

During the month of May, we highlighted how Corps provide training and experiences to prepare Corpsmembers for careers. We interviewed with Ashley Lavender, Director of Programs and Darien Parker, Program Coordinator from The Sustainability Institute(SI) to discuss the Corps transition from working mainly on weatherization projects to focusing on trail work in the city of Charleston, SC.


What kind of projects did The Sustainability Institute start working with?

Ashley: We started off in a very different form. For over 10 years, the Environmental Conservation Corps’ (ECC) training and service activities focused on weatherization and energy retrofit services in low-wealth communities in the South Carolina Lowcountry as the “Energy Conservation Corps.” The Corpsmembers gained in-demand industry certification while empowering local communities and mitigating anthropogenic climate change. To address some of the challenges associated with the pandemic, our program intentionally pivoted, expanded its offerings, and rebranded to better serve the community and subsequently encapsulate our work.

We were really focused on weatherization and eco-efficiency homes. We wanted to positively contribute to climate change and mitigation efforts, while at the same time empowering individuals in communities. One problem that we face here in South Carolina, like a lot of towns across the state is displacement of historically Black communities due to a host of factors, including an increase in cost of living, new development, and structural barriers to food access. The ECC strives to lower the cost of living by reducing energy leaks in private residences and increases access to fresh and nutritious foods by building and maintaining urban gardens. We also have an issue of high utility bills. These families were unable to pay their bills, largely because of energy leaks and relatively small issues with their homes. Our team came in and assisted with those various projects through AmeriCorps programs. We’ve managed a couple of different programs through AmeriCorps, not only Opportunity Youth Service Initiative (OYSI), but we’ve also had a Veterans Corps as well and we’re hoping in the near distant future that we’ll bring on the Veterans Corps again and hopefully complement our current team. We see the value in the potential mentorship opportunities such a complementary team would provide.

We really focused on the home improvement side of things for many years, working with a whole host of partners in both the city of Charleston, the county, and multiple county governments. We’ve also worked with some very influential local nonprofits that have a presence across the state. We’re really excited for our habitat stewardship efforts to move well beyond the welcome municipalities and to work with the national agency through their different parks program. Now, only about 25% of our time is dedicated to the weatherization and the home improvement side of what we do, and about 75% of what we do now is focused on land conservation efforts and we’re really happy about that. With the increase in COVID-19 vaccine availability, we will resume our participation with in-person community events to encourage residents to apply for our money-saving services.


Although your program has made the shift to focus more on land conservation efforts, will you all still continue to do a lot of weatherization projects?

Ashley: Yes! We are one of a few AmeriCorps programs that performs weatherization work, and we are aware the need for this service continues to grow in the communities we serve. We’re in the evaluation phase. We made this programmatic shift at the end of last year. One thing that’s been really exciting is that we have witnessed our Corpsmembers get recruited largely from highly urbanized areas. One of the challenges and also opportunities is helping the Corpsmembers become more comfortable with being outside. This new direction for the ECC exposes Corpsmembers to a diverse array of local and naturally occurring elements, including less familiar plants and animals, and even job opportunities involving their management.

So while we’re doing this work to support public lands and contributing to our communities, we’re at the same time exposing the Corpsmembers to different flora and fauna; which only increases the buy-in from them. Our Corpsmembers are critical in the success of these projects and even more critical in the success for large-scale conservation projects. We want everyone to be equally excited about this work. We strive to provide context as to why this work is important. It’s not just a matter of skill development; they’re actually contributing to something larger than themselves, which can be very powerful.


Who applies to be a part of your program?

Ashley: Being that we do work with OYSI programs, we typically recruit and enroll 17 to 24 year-olds. Every once in a while, we’ll have an older Corpsmember join us. We recruit from local neighborhoods, mostly around the North Charleston area. Recently, we recruited someone from Aiken, SC. An important component of our model is teaching skills in our workforce development program while offering Corpsmembers opportunities to become better acquainted with their community and learn how to identify and communicate community needs. Who would know this community better than the residents? By recruiting locally, the ECC provides a conduit for listening to the community and formulating action-oriented steps to address these needs. They are largely communities of color and as of right now, our team primarily comprised of Black males. The ECC Crew Leader is a Black female, who is eager to test her leadership skills and gain skills related to agricultural education, specifically focused on the agricultural contributions of the Gullah/Geechee people. We recruit in a lot of different ways and work with different partners, but we consistently get a lot of males in the door. By expanding and promoting our training and service offerings, we hope to…[increase the gender diversity of the ECC.] We’re really trying to diversify the gender representation of our team, and that’s happening, slowly but surely. We have several women on staff who are really passionate about this as well. Hopefully, we will continue to move in a positive direction this way.


How does your program work? How do you decide which Corpsmembers do what projects?

Ashley: We run Monday-Friday with occasional service opportunities on the weekends. Our dedicated staff work closely with the Corpsmembers to help them get the most out of the Program.

We typically engage in a service or training activity as a team. We do emphasize working as a cohesive unit. Currently, we have six Corpsmembers and are actively recruiting more. When possible, additional SI Staff lend a hand in the field to further cultivate camaraderie and increase the team’s capacity. The satisfaction of a job well done is enjoyed by all!

SI Staff routinely seeks feedback from the Corpsmembers about service and training opportunities in part to learn on which activities they are specifically keen. We incorporate their feedback by engaging identified partners and skill sets of interest into our program, whenever possible. If we receive a lot of negative feedback, including the Corpsmember feeling as though their work is not appreciated and/or respected, we work with our service partners to create a revised win-win arrangement.

Because our team is currently on the smaller side,  it’s really difficult to do a lot of break outs. But when it comes to training, we have been able to offer unique training opportunities, depending on the Corpsmember in question and what their individual interests, goals, and needs are.


How did you venture into working with Refuge Partnerships and Recreation Trails?

Ashley: Initially, it was in response to safety concerns surrounding performing weatherization work during the pandemic. Some of this work requires the temporary displacement of residents as a safety precaution. Then we thought about the needs of our community and other ways our program could align with AmeriCorps’ mission while safeguarding our team. Let’s venture outdoors, we said! Charleston, SC is a pretty unique place. We have a very strong conservation ethos here. We came to the table with different perspectives, interests, and expertise and took the time to consider the opportunities the landscape offered and identified top priorities. We’re known here for our beautiful landscapes, habitats and wildlife, but there is also the cultural significance to protecting these public lands and special places. The Sustainability Institute’s Leadership Team weighed the options presented by our community partners and zeroed in on who is most at risk of being impacted now and in the future, including the people of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, as they’re an indigenous group with ancestral ties to formerly enslaved persons of West African descent and are recognized as among the United States’ first climate refugees. Our work, including the oyster restoration project we are doing with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ SCORE Program, serves the Gullah/Geechee people, as oyster reefs are of great ecological, economic, and cultural importance. Oyster reefs are shoreline-protectors. By building reefs, we are positively contributing to coastal resiliency. The  flooding in our region affects everyone, to varying degrees, with some towns and cities more prone. Highly disruptive flooding events are happening with greater intensity and frequency as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Our work combats both the root cause (through carbon footprint reduction) of human-induced climate change and its downstream effects (flooding).

We thought that by giving the Corpsmembers this opportunity to learn habitat restoration skills, they would learn how they could be a part of the solution and would open up career pathways for them. Throughout the program, we help them connect to different partners who are well-positioned help them evaluate and achieve their goals.


How did the transition from working on weatherization projects to habitat stewardship work?

Ashley: Government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses were consulted about their needs for skilled labor. We kept our ears to the ground. After months of info-gathering, we created a revised plan to pivot to mostly habitat restoration type work. Our current team was recruited after the SI committed to making the transition. When the Corpsmembers were initially interviewed, they were asked about their comfort level with different types of activities. Even still, we recognize our role in offering a young adult a place on the team also means helping individuals push past their comfort zones, plan ahead, build confidence, learn how to communicate their thoughts and ideas, and enhance their organizational skills. It’s thrilling to witness individual and team growth.


What does an average day look like?

Darien: Every day feels a little different. The typical day starts with a body temperature check and hand washing, briefing about the day’s activities and related expectations, a rundown of the list of PPE and specialized equipment required to carry out the work, and packing up for the day. From there, we typically depart by van to the service or training site. Some days are spent entirely in the field. Late afternoon, we return to the SI, debrief, perform housekeeping and miscellaneous tasks, complete timesheets, and the Corpsmembers head out.

This week, they spent time at the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near Awendaw, SC. They go there about once a week and usually spend the whole day out there clearing trails, planting native species, removing invasive species, and learning from the Refuge’s long-term volunteers. Other days have been spent harvesting native cordgrass seeds as part of the From Seeds to Shoreline Program with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. ECC members have fixed bicycles for kids with Second Chance Bikes, built raised garden beds with Lowcountry Veterans and The Green Heart Project to increase food access and promote self-sufficiency and healthy lifestyles, reduced utility bills by weatherizing homes in low-wealth communities, and painted walls to beautify buildings for Habitat for Humanity and Lowcountry Orphan Relief.

On other days, Corpsmembers volunteer at food distribution events, such as the one coordinated and hosted by the North Charleston Community Resource Center, packaging and handing out boxes of food to hundreds of families experiencing food insecurity. Last week, Origin SC facilitated a financial literacy workshop (one of three workshops in a series) that addressed how to save money and budget.  Other training activities focused on employment dossier preparation, including effective resume writing, and how to create a LinkedIn profile.


Your organization is currently working on a project with Cape Romain. Could you tell us what your Corpsmembers are doing?

Ashley: Cape Romain is a really unique protected place in that it encompasses over 60,000 acres of land and waterways on the coast of South Carolina, including an array of habitat types which provide refuge to a diversity of plants and animals, including the endangered red wolf and the threatened loggerhead sea turtle. Cape Romain  has one of the largest nesting populations of loggerhead sea turtles, the state reptile of South Carolina, in the southeastern United States. One of the first projects we worked on at Cape Romain was removing invasive species and planting native plants around the Sewee Visitor Center – a large building with indoor classrooms and restrooms, where interactive educational opportunities are offered to the public. Our work at Sewee has afforded Corpsmembers the opportunity to learn more about local flora and fauna and the safe and effective use of tools, such as chainsaws, pole saws, and conventional landscaping tools. We’ve cleared some land and boardwalks, too, to increase trail accessibility. To switch things up, our members enjoy pressure washing the Refuge Headquarters. Although there aren’t many visitors at the Center right now due to COVID, our efforts are helping the Refuge staff and volunteers prepare for their welcome back initiative.


You mentioned that Corpsmembers received different certifications, can you elaborate more on the ones that are offered through your program?

Ashley: The one that we completed most recently that was really exciting was recreational trails certification. We actually brought in a world-renowned trainer who had experience working on trails across the globe to come in and provide a week-long training that was technically based, that included soft skills with leadership and development modules. We covered a range of topics that were really focused on how to design, build, and maintain recreational trails, which historically have also presented a lot of social exclusions.

One of the trails that we completed at a county park was an ADA compliant trail to allow access to the archery range. It was really exciting to work with the county park system to achieve that and watch the Corpsmembers go from this pile of rubble to a trail. Having those actual tangible results was exciting to our Corpsmembers.

Other certifications that our members have received:


So far, what is your most memorable accomplishment while working on Cape Romain?

Darien: One of the first projects we did at the Sewee Welcome Center focused on landscape management, as there was extensive overgrown brush on the property. The Corpsmembers first learned how to mark trees as a protected/native species to avoid removing, while also identifying invasive plant species to be removed. They were excited to get in some chainsaw practice and ended up removing enough natural debris to fill six pickup trucks!! It was a memorable experience to hear the Corpsmembers share their newly acquired knowledge with each other, including which trees are native, such as the longleaf pine.


What is the overall goal with this project?

Ashley: Our main objective is to learn and hone new skills while providing service to the Refuge and connecting interested Corpsmembers with post-service employment opportunities. By demonstrating our skills and commitment, we strive to be given the opportunity to have full ownership over a specific project from design to implementation to assessment at the Refuge. We seek to help the Sewee Center be as welcoming, effective, and accessible as possible. So, whatever we can do to contribute to their mission, including to make the Center as visitor-friendly as possible, is really important.

Many of the trails within these systems, including Cape Romain NWR, aren’t useable right now for a host of reasons, including natural debris obstructions and limited staff and volunteer availability to clear the trails. One of the major goals is to make sure that these buildings, trails, etc. are ready to rock and roll after COVID. We’re getting the site ready and filling in the gaps as they’re identified, focusing on outdoor spaces at the Refuge. Skilled and reliable teams of volunteers are high in demand, as park managers typically contend with small staff sizes. The ECC is up to the challenge!


What are your plans after Cape Romain? Do you have other partnerships in the works?

Ashley: Yes – many! We work with multiple partners each week. Some of our partnerships were cultivated by individual team members who already had an existing relationship and in other cases, we strengthened our community ties as a team  We’re really passionate about community connectivity as a key ingredient to sustainable communities. We ask: “How can we leverage our knowledge, skills, and passions to increase community connectivity?” “Who is already working in this space?” “What is the best strategy for offering our assistance?” “How would this work fit the SI’s mission?”

In the future, we hope to expand our efforts in combatting food insecurity with the aid of additional AmeriCorps funding and a Corps specifically dedicated to this issue, as accessing healthy and nutritious food is a widespread challenge facing the SC Lowcountry, including for our current Corpsmembers, and directly relates to community connectivity. One of the projects we’re developing is cultivating a nearby food forest with several other partners. This multiple phase project will expand the capacity of our current Corps and prepare The Sustainability Institute Staff for forthcoming food security-related projects.


Is there anything else that you would like us to know about The Sustainability Institute?

Ashley: We seek a full-time Project Manager, preferably someone with experience serving as a site supervisor or in a similar capacity for a comparable AmeriCorps program, and a part-time Director of Development. Follow us on social media for details. We’re on LinkedIn, too!

We embrace a very holistic view of sustainability. One of our core tenets is adaptability. For us, a silver-lining of COVID is it encouraged us to pause and evaluate where we were as an organization and where we wanted to go. We carefully considered the challenges and opportunities the pandemic illuminated and started to devise strategies for increasing our impact in these areas. We’re going to continue to listen, observe, assess, and make the changes necessary to better serve our community and our Corpsmembers.

As vaccine availability continues to expand, we will resume coordinating energy conservation workshops by partnering with neighborhood association presidents and other community leaders in addition to local organizations to reach as many residents as possible. One of our goals with this ongoing effort is to minimize, if not eradicate, barriers to money-saving devices (e.g., programmable thermostats and LED bulbs), including the devices themselves and knowledge on their installation and operation. These community outreach events often lead to an increase in home weatherization requests from local residents, which our team is happy to review. We’re always learning and love what we’re doing. We aim to provide such services until they are no longer needed.