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Corpsmember Profile: Creating Community in Colorado – Meet Xia Ren Arnold
This season, The Corps Network is featuring Corpsmember voices and stories of interns and “individual placement members.” Below, meet Xia Ren Arnold shares their personal experience of learning and growth while serving with Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC), based in Denver. Among other accomplishments during their service, Xia earned a Public Lands Corps Hiring Certificate: this federal hiring authority is granted to young people who have served 640 hours on public lands, including at least 120 hours on federal lands. Xia currently serves on MHYC’s Winter Fire Crew.
What were you doing before you came to Mile High Youth Corps?
Before I came to MHYC, I was an avid farmer. I had dropped out of business school after two years, once I was able to further introspect and identify what brought fulfillment and understanding into my life, and what didn’t.
Growing up, my grandparents were farmers in Wisconsin, California, and Alabama; I remember the stories they’d tell, gardening with my mom, and how we’d spend summers in their orchards and vineyards. Guess it all stuck with me.
I spent the next two and a half years, after leaving college, farming with my hānai family on their lands on the islands of Maui and Lāna’i. In early 2019, I had decided to head over to New Zealand, where I was able to live with a family of five for three months to learn, farm, and exchange culture. After being back in the States, I was looking for work and that search led me to where I am now.
How did you learn about MHYC? What made you want to join?
I had to leave New Zealand and come back to the U.S. quite abruptly due to a family emergency. After this period, I was looking for work and was able to narrow it down to Colorado Springs, CO. My brother had just moved there and offered me a place to stay. During this job search, I came across Mile High Youth Corps’ Fall Forestry Corpsmember position. I remember reading the position description and thinking how unbelievable it was that, at an entry-level position, I could learn the ropes of land conservation, earn a living stipend AND an AmeriCorps Education Award.
Honestly, it seemed a little too good to be true. I hadn’t heard of anything like this program before and was baffled at how much I resonated with the service and MHYC’s values: youth, community, and conservation. For nearly a year, while working on my hānai tūtū’s (grandmother’s) farm on Lāna’i, I was a program specialist at the local youth center. I discovered how vital community is to me and witnessed the lasting impact of conservation efforts (and negligence). Naturally, I had to apply.
You joined MHYC in 2019 as a Corpsmember. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey within the organization?
My journey experienced within the organization has been, in short, unreal. When first applying, I was already enamored with the position and the organization. When I received my first email from one of their staff, I was floored. At the very bottom of this person’s email to me, under their name and title, were their stated pronouns: “she/they.” I’ll remember it until the end of my days. That was when I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I had never seen anyone, especially one part of a renowned organization, have pronouns stated in a professional manner. Being someone who is trans-nonbinary, that alone changed so much for me.
“It was during that first season as a Corpsmember that I recognized an organization has that power to change someone’s life.”
MHYC incorporates DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) learning, initiatives, and implementation into all they do with great thoughtfulness, research, and intent. They have a Spectrum Club for all those LGBTQIA+, including allies. During this season, for these reasons I’m certain, I was able to begin using my name and pronouns openly for the first time. It was a big, and exciting, deal.
The service our crew did during this term was incredible: everything from planting trees, removing invasive species, installing fire rings, and building numerous types of trail and structures. The impact was seen and experienced first-hand. It was the most incredible experience being able to be a part of that change, camp at the project sites, create lasting bonds with my fellow Corpsmembers, meet amazing project partners, and love what I do every day in such a healthy work environment.
MHYC is great in many regards. Part of their thoughtfulness is shown in the way they care for those that serve with them. This includes an entire support team dedicated to get Corpsmembers anything they need (i.e. housing support, setting them up with SNAP benefits), and Alumni Mentors who guide Corpsmembers throughout their terms and connect them with MHYC’s food bank, no-cost counselling (which is beyond helpful when working such a physically demanding job), and one-on-one assistance with résumés, finding jobs, mock interviews, and more.
When my first term was coming to an end, MHYC was posting new positions. One of them was the Alumni Mentor: Conservation & Outreach position in Denver, CO. I applied, interviewed, got the job, and started two months later. For my first couple months, before relocating, it was an arduous three to six hours a day of commuting, but a wonderful eight hours of serving in a position I loved.
My roles shifted as needed throughout my nine-month term and I was able to get numerous trainings, vast mentorship, and many incredible memories. I was able to work at all three MHYC locations and with different kinds of crews from throughout the organization. During this term, I served on the Spectrum Committee, interviewed those who were pioneering research on affinity crews in Conservation Corps, interviewed Corpsmembers on their experiences and impact, led hiring initiatives and job postings, and grew substantially as a person and leader. A big thank you Emily Holmes and Jesse Roehm for that progress.
“Whether it was camping for four days in the frost, following necessary and meticulous COVID-19 procedures, or simply completing hard manual labor – each person exceeded their service requirements with gusto and an attitude of togetherness”
When this term was (sadly) coming to its end, I had the opportunity to do some sawyer work and lead a Hand/Trail Conservation Crew back in Colorado Springs. I was a co-crew leader for the term and continued to learn and grow substantially. My crew completely blew my expectations into another dimension. Whether it was camping for four days in the frost, following necessary and meticulous COVID-19 procedures, or simply completing hard manual labor – each person exceeded their service requirements with gusto and an attitude of togetherness. We were able to take part in many incredible projects at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and Spring Creek Park in Brookside. The overall experience of this term left me feeling extremely grateful.
When the hiring season came along for MHYC’s infamous Winter Fire crew, I thought I’d give it a shot! I sent in a letter of intent, answered some interview questions, then crossed all fingers and toes. A month ago, I had started my position and training as a Wildland Firefighter on the crew. I truly cannot express the daily levels of excitement and gratitude felt.
Congratulations on earning a Public Lands Corps Hiring Certificate! What are your educational or career goals for the future? Do you want to work on public lands?
Thank you so much! I’ll be serving with MHYC and the U.S. Forest Service until April. I’m only a month in, but so far am loving every minute. My educational and career goals are semi-dependent on this term and the levels on which I resonate with the work in this particular field. If this line of service connects with me, I’d like to try my shot at continuing into the Summer term and going from there.
Originally, and if for whatever reasons, I wish to depart from firefighting in April, I’ll continue my studies and apprenticeships in farming worldwide with a focus on permaculture and folk medicine. As for education, after two years of traveling apprenticeships, I’d move back to Hawai’i for college near my family to study formally. When the time is right – I’d like to operate my own self-sustaining farm, open an herbal apothecary (sourced by said farm), and focus on giving back to kanaka maoli (native Hawaiians), kūpuna (elders), and the communities thereof. Regardless of where I end up professionally, I know at the very least I’ll be volunteering in conservation initiatives – whether federal, state, or otherwise – until I’m physically no longer able.
As someone who served in 2019 and also in 2020, can you talk to us about what it’s been like serving through COVID-19?
A major shift occurred in early 2020. We began working from home and staff put in countless hours to get us on track. Our CEO, Deputy Director, Senior Land Manager, and others were all extremely fast-acting in creating a new “normal.” They created research-based protocols around working in-office, in-field, from home, health screens, cleaning, camping, COVID-19 testing and more. These protocols have been consistently updated and adjusted as needed. The details, thoughtfulness, and organizational commitment are the reasons we’re still able to run these programs.
Some things have been harder than others. It’s tough to not be able to connect with crews and coworkers in a more personable way, have beloved coworkers leave due to COVID-related budget constraints, and experience resource rationing (masks, gloves). On my crew in 2019, we were very close and personable. This year, not being able to express that same closeness, familiarity, and friendly touch was one of the hardest things for me to navigate.
The easier things: twice-a-day cleaning indoors, consistent vehicle sanitization, and office hour sign-in all have been effective. Lastly, during my Alumni Mentor term, I began as a part of the YACE (Youth and Community Engagement) Team before transferring to the Land Team because of COVID-related restructuring. This was a tough transition at first, as I had really grown close to my team. As it turns out, I really connected with the Land Team as well and was able to learn a lot with many new opportunities and experiences.
Operations have been a learning experience, ever-changing, and meticulous. Being a camping crew leader in the field during this time, I feel lucky to have had Corpsmembers that appreciated the procedures in-place and were responsible on their off days. It created a safe dynamic, where we wore our masks during the workday, kept windows cracked while driving, sanitized vehicles after the day, kept our distance, and were able to get tested if needed. Overall, things have been running smoothly considering the conditions of the pandemic in Colorado. Due to the tireless work of those on the frontlines, those who are crunching the numbers and analyzing the data, the MHYC staff creating the procedures, and all Corpsmembers’ willingness to follow guidelines, we’re able to keep doing what we love.
What advice or words of wisdom would you give to another young adult who might be considering a program like this, or considering a gap year?
For those considering doing something similar, I’d recommend that, after finding positions that resonate with you (there are numerous outdoor, conservation, and adventure job boards), research the organizations. Ensure your values align with theirs and that the purpose and intent of the service and/or crew excites you. There are so many incredible opportunities out there that are looking for young people passionate about conservation and the outdoors – even if you have no experience! Many of these programs allow you to get your “foot in the door” through specialized trainings and opportunities to learn, gain experience and certifications, network, and grow as a leader. Some also have AmeriCorps Education Awards to help with student loan forbearance, tuition, etc. If you’re interested, I’d recommend you give it a try: who knows, it may very well end up being your dream job, or could you lead you to your dream job. At the least, you could meet great people, add to your résumé, see beautiful sights, and make a difference in your community, environment, and self.