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Young adults from across the country serve together in the area on AmeriCorps projects

The 10 volunteers serving with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Conservation Corps Oak 2 team arrived at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge at the end of March trained for fire duties and ready to burn.

6/08/11 (Wed)


The 10 volunteers serving with the AmeriCorps National Civilian Conservation Corps Oak 2 team arrived at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge at the end of March trained for fire duties and ready to burn.


They stayed through six weeks of wildly unpredictable weather and endured blizzards, flooding and an extended power outage. They became known around Kenmare as they did some spring cleaning at Pioneer Village, escorted the Easter Bunny through hordes of kids at the annual egg hunt, and shared games, music and countless smiles with residents of the Baptist Home of Kenmare.


And they even managed to assist the Des Lacs NWR staff and other refuges in the area with prescribed fire projects, as weather allowed, working on 16 different fires for a total of over 3600 acres.


Oak 2 was one of two AmeriCorps teams trained in firefighting duties this year, with team members taking two of the basic firefighting and fire behavior training classes at the NCCC campus in Vinton, IA, prior to coming to North Dakota.


Team leader Kyle Beaulieu, 23, of Governeur, NY, said the Oak 2 members learned of their assignment at Kenmare about a week and a half before they left. “The other fire team stayed in Iowa,” he said. “We were going the farthest away and I was thrilled.”


The group completed the training requirements for ATV/UTV and chainsaw operations with Des Lacs NWR personnel and then joined them for prescribed fires on the Des Lacs, Upper Souris, Lostwood, J. Clark Salyer, Audubon and Medicine Lake NWRs.


Members of the team were pleased with their experiences. “[The staff] gave us a lot of freedom to go out there and try different jobs,” Beaulieu said.


Katie Singleton, 23, of Portland, OR, enjoyed working on actual fires. “I used to think of fire like a raging inferno,” she said. “Things from our first firefighter training in fire behavior didn’t make sense until we went on a few prescribed burns. It was kind of theoretical until we got out here.”


“The fire crew has standard operating procedures for doing the things they do,” said Jesse LeClair, 22, of Cape Coral, FL. “So you work the same at one [fire] as you do at another.”


“I was surprised at how comfortable I personally felt on a fire,” said Rachel Anderson, 20, of Danville, CA. “It was so well-managed and everyone seemed to have everything under control.”


“We got the experience of handling situations without being in a big wildfire,” said Colton Gale, 20, of South Windsor, CT. “Yesterday, I was using a pump and found a water source and everything fell into place and worked. All the training finally pieced itself together.”


Doug Downs, fire management officer stationed at the Des Lacs NWR, described the inexperienced team members as willing to learn and work hard. “We did some burning for habitat maintenance and habitat improvement,” he said. “They needed to learn everything because this was their first fire experience.”


Refuge staff members were paired with the NCCC volunteers for prescribed burning projects, and the plan worked well. “All the refuge employees have been great,” said Clayton Pitts, 24, of Poolesville, MD. “I was not expecting to respect everyone so much.”


“The fire staff here has been excellent,” Beaulieu said. “They’ve been showing us the ropes and allowing us to make mistakes and learn from them.”


Given the soggy and cold weather conditions during many of the spring weeks, the team completed other work projects for the refuges. They joined prescribed fire specialist Calvin Moldenhauer in Minot one day to fill sandbags in preparation for flooding of the Mouse River. They removed one and a half miles of barbed wire fence, installed a half mile of new fence post, cleaned up 770 pounds of trash and debris on the Des Lacs NWR and from the lake itself, and handled some tree removal projects at the Upper Souris NWR.


Service in the

community brings

other rewards

The Oak 2 team members put in over 500 hours toward their independent service projects by volunteering during their evenings and weekends to help with community activities.


“NCCC requires each of us to complete 80 independent service hours,” Beaulieu said, explaining the hours could be spread over the entire year’s worth of volunteer service.


“But the goal of each person on this team is 100 hours,” said Abe Ritchie, 18, of Silverton, OR. “And as a team, we’ve each already got close to 50 hours.


One of their entertaining projects was the annual Easter Egg Hunt in Kenmare. “We hid the eggs and it was amazing how many kids showed up!” said Matt Larrabee, 22, of Hopkinton, MA. “Then it was my job to be the bodyguard for the Easter Bunny.”


The group took on some of the dirty spring cleaning jobs at Kenmare’s Pioneer Village and went there on four different occasions to dust and clean six buildings, scrape old paint, stain three buildings and remove some fence and posts, among other tasks.


They coordinated their work with Lake County Historical Society president Bryan Quigley. “That was great,” said David Albrecht, 23, of Indianola, IA. “He allowed us to walk around and see what things looked like.”


The team spent a Saturday cleaning and organizing at the Salvation Army in Minot and returned on April 30th to assist with the YMCA Marathon, only to see the race shut down by a blizzard even though many of the runners refused to leave the course.


However, the volunteers spent the majority of their independent service time at the Baptist Home of Kenmare, visiting on most Tuesday and Thursday nights. They started by playing games with the residents, which quickly evolved into bingo nights, a variety of card games, and some fierce basketball shooting competition.


The Oak 2 members also watched movies with the residents, sang karaoke, stained the facility’s gazebo and shared a special meal with their new friends. When the refuge lost electricity after the April 30th storm, the NCCC volunteers were invited to shower and clean up at the Baptist Home and were offered rooms to stay in if necessary. Albrecht even had the opportunity to learn a little more about his grandmother, who once taught school in this area and later lived in Minot, after he asked the residents if they remembered the woman.


“That was probably the greatest idea for things we could have done [for a service project],” said Carina Sweet, 23, of Rawlins, WY. “We can’t express how much it meant to us to spend time with those people!”


Several team members were surprised at being received so warmly by so many Kenmare residents and businesses. “People are so nice to us,” Ritchie said. “They see us together and they ask about our T-shirts.”


Pitts discovered the kindness of local residents when he had to cash a check at a local bank, where he had no account. His check was accepted with no problem. “I’m not used to that kind of friendship and trust,” he said. “When we drive through town, everybody waves!”


Stephen and Susan Yang of Ying Bin opened their doors to the volunteers, accommodating the needs of vegetarians in the group and allowing them to charge their cell phones there when the refuge lost power for three days.


The group also learned a little history from Jim Hillestad, a longtime Kenmare resident who worked at the original CCC Camp established in Kenmare during the 1930s. “He was kind enough to come down and talk to us for about an hour or so,” Singleton said.


“Now we recognize people from here, and that’s nice,” said Anderson. “When we go to the restaurants, the movie theatre, even the White Buffalo [soda fountain]. We love staying here, and we’re grateful to the whole community.”


“And the actual White Buffalo sundae is delicious!” added Singleton.


Mutual benefits for team,

refuge and Kenmare

Souris River Basin Complex project leader Kelly Hogan thanked the volunteers for their efforts. “You did a great job,” he said. “You made a lot of refuges black, which is a good thing.”


Jennifer Jewett, education and outreach coordinator at the Des Lacs NWR, praised the Oak 2 team for their leadership skills and their willingness to work. “They wanted to help us get the projects we needed to get done,” she said. “Even with the weather, it got to the point where they said, ‘We don’t care if it’s raining or snowing, we’ll go outside and work!’”


Jewett worked through the winter on the extensive application materials necessary to bring the team to the Des Lacs NWR. “The only cost to was for additional supplies needed for specific projects,” she said. “Housing is provided but they don’t get any type of payment from us.”


She believed the team’s presence benefited both the refuge and residents in Kenmare. “The community really saw how special this group was,” she said. “I envy them their commitment to service projects and civic projects in the community, and [their motivation] about environmental stewardship and conservation. That’s what impressed me about them.”


The NCCC Oak 2 team left Kenmare for another prescribed fire assignment at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge near Necedah, WI. “We’re hoping we can walk into that and accomplish their objectives,” Beaulieu said, “with the knowledge that we’ve gained here.”


During their stay, several team members visited students at Kenmare High School and Dakota College at Bottineau to talk about opportunities as volunteers with the AmeriCorps program. More information about the AmeriCorps NCCC can be found online at

AmeriCorps NCCC Team Oak 2 at the Des Lacs refuge . . .
Front row (l-r): Kyle Beaulieu (team leader), Abe Ritchie, Clayton Pitts,
Katie Singleton, Matt Larrabee, Jesse LeClair and Rachel Anderson.
Back row: Colton Gale, Carina Sweet and David Albrecht.