By Emily Bialkowski
Local graduate and former Miss Caledonia Nathalie Besse is blazing a trail of unique volunteerism. As an AmeriCorps National Civilian Corps member she has fought wild fires, tutored children, responded to disasters and learned to go without many creature comforts all in the name of making her country a better place to live. Besse recently took the time to answer several questions and talk about her experiences.
Q: So I understand that after you finished college in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in community health you felt a desire to help the world. Why AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps?
A: I knew after I graduated I wanted to spend some time traveling and volunteering but found that most programs required payment in order to volunteer. I found that a bit counter intuitive, so I kept looking. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) came up in a search and seemed like the perfect opportunity.
I would be able to work and travel with a team of fellow 18- to 24-year-olds in service areas such as disaster, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, as well as urban and rural development. At the end of my ten-month service commitment I would walk away having earned a small stipend and with an educational award I would be able to use for federal students loans.
Q: What was your first AmeriCorps NCCC assignment and what has transpired since?
A: My first two-month project was trail building at a non-profit living land museum called the Land Heritage Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
After that my team and I traveled to the Ouachita National Forest in Oklahoma to work with the USDA Forest Service Oklahoma Ranger District. I had tried out for and been accepted to my campus’s fire management team, and Oklahoma is where we were trained as Type II Wildland Firefighters and worked on chain saw qualifications.
My third project was in Eudora, Ark. tutoring in classrooms and at the J. Austin White Cultural Center.
My fourth and final project was back in Oklahoma with the forest service supporting them during the wildfire season.
Q: As part of a fire management team, have you seen any fire activity?
A: During our second round my team and I were able to get our first fire experience through prescribed burns at the Ouachita National Forest. We had our first experiences dragging trip torches, containing spot fires and seeing how fire operations work.
That experience would provide useful for a fourth round when my team and I were assigned to a Type II Interagency Hand Crew at the Little Bear fire in Ruidoso, New Mexico.
We spent time strengthening line, mopping up and doing burned area rehabilitation. A few days after we returned to Oklahoma we responded to a three-acre fire where we were able to dig a direct line. We rounded out our fire experience as we were assigned to El Paso County, Colo. to perform “initial attack” during the Waldo Canyon fire.
Q: What kind of creature comforts have you had to give up?
A: I’ve had to go without things from time to time, most noticeably running water, but nothing I’ve had to give up has been too prominent.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to learn to live with little and to really appreciate what I have. If you’re wondering if I missed cable and reliable Internet, the answer is definitely no.
Q: Have there been any intimidating moments?
A: There have been plenty of intimidating moments. The day I felled my first tree, driving past destroyed homes on the way to a fire, responding to Branson, Mo. for tornado disaster relief, realizing I would be spending every moment with the same ten people for ten months.
One of the biggest things I will take away from the program is that I am capable of much more than I could have ever imagined.
Q: What are you gaining as an AmeriCorps NCCC corps member?
A: As an AmeriCorps NCCC member I’ve gained so much knowledge about myself, about communities and what it really means to help someone.
Q: How does your commitment to AmeriCorps NCCC help build a better country?
A: AmeriCorps NCCC members learn through active citizenship that people can indeed make a difference. We learn first hand that when a few committed individuals get together and work hard a lot of good can be accomplished.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I am returning to the AmeriCorps NCCC Southwest Region based out of Denver, Colo. as a team leader next year. My main focus will be operational support; however, I will have the opportunity to lead teams in the field as well.
After AmeriCorps NCCC my most current plan is to pursue Wilderness EMT certification and find a job in one of America’s National Parks.
Q: How did Caledonia – the community and its people – influence the decisions you are making today?
A: It wasn’t until I left Caledonia that I was able to truly appreciate all that the community had done for me. Caledonia has many thoughtful and committed citizens actively engaging the community to make it a great place to live. Caledonia is also a beautiful place to live. Prior to AmeriCorps NCCC I had never given a thought to who or what organizations contribute to making Caledonia a great place to live. After my year with AmeriCorps NCCC I have worked with various people and agencies that are making places all across the United States great places to live. This work has made me appreciate all that the citizens of Caledonia do and encourages me to help make communities all across the United States great places to be.
Contact Emily Bialkowski at firstname.lastname@example.org