While the extent of their influence isn’t widely known, AmeriCorps members are essential to many of the region’s foundational services, from food banks to state parks
Story by Charlotte Bausch | Photography by Hunter D’Antuono
In a grassy lot nestled in the corner of a subdivision in Somers, Davis Neuhouser stands next to a cooler, offering sandwiches to the group of children whirling boisterously around the plastic table in front of him. The kids jostle each other, laughing and leaping around scattered hula-hoops.
Neuhouser, an AmeriCorps member working with No Kid Hungry, has been giving out lunches in this tiny park for months. He started the lunch program as his project for his AmeriCorps assignment. Since beginning the program, Neuhouser has given out dozens of lunches to kids in Somers each weekday.
Neuhouser is one of numerous young people who come to the Flathead Valley each year to work for an array of state, national and nonprofit services. As members of AmeriCorps, the lesser-known domestic counterpart to the Peace Corps, they receive a stipend in exchange for completing service in communities across the nation. Although not everyone has heard of AmeriCorps, and some associate it with working in inner cities, program participants like Neuhouser help to provide essential services for residents and visitors in Montana.
Countless public services are required to make a community function, such as food banks, water and energy providers, and nonprofits. They are especially diverse and vital in the Flathead Valley, where the area’s extraordinary natural resources require committed management and conservation efforts to continue thriving.
Important as they are, these public services are often understaffed and underfunded. AmeriCorps members from around the country travel to the valley each year to fill the gap — but many people don’t know they’re here.
At the HEART Locker in Kalispell, Brady Hill watches the last of the visiting high school students filter out. The stragglers weave around racks of clothing and piles of new donations in the cavernous, thrift store-like space. During the school year, homeless kids in the Kalispell and Evergreen school districts can come here to hang out, receive tutoring and “shop” in the free store for clothing and toiletries, as part of the services that the HEART Program, the Locker’s umbrella organization, provides for homeless youth.
Before receiving a grant to employ an AmeriCorps member, the HEART Program had only one staff member. Now, it also has Hill, who works here as part of AmeriCorps’ VISTA program, which is specifically directed at eradicating poverty. During his time in the Flathead, Hill is helping to create new projects that will continue after his term ends. That is the goal of the VISTA program: to expand nonprofits and to establish sustainable programs that will endure after the members themselves are gone.
AmeriCorps grants like those from the VISTA program make expansion possible for smaller nonprofits with few resources.
“A lot of times places that are applying for VISTAs are in their infancy,” Hill said. “And [they’re] looking to build their program, and they don’t have a lot of money to do so.”
Part of the reason AmeriCorps members are affordable for small groups like the HEART Program is because they receive what the organization calls a “modest stipend,” as low as $12,000 a year.
The low stipend is part of what makes AmeriCorps a valuable resource, but living on such an allowance in the Flathead can be difficult, particularly for members who move to the area during the summer months, when housing is scarce and expensive. Some members have to get creative to get by.
Hill, who works 40 hours a week for the HEART Program, puts in additional hours at Starbucks to make ends meet.
“Coming out of college with student loans, it’s pretty hard,” Hill said. “Hence the second job.”
Despite the tight finances, Hill’s work for the HEART Program gives him valuable nonprofit experience. Many members see AmeriCorps as a way to gain experience that will be relevant in their future careers.
Morgan Parks, a member working in Montana State Parks, joined AmeriCorps partly because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study in graduate school.
“It gave me an opportunity to explore fields I hadn’t really thought of,” Parks said. “Now I actually have an idea of what I want to do … which is amazing, because a year ago I just felt completely lost.”
As difficult as it is to live on the stipend, Hill feels the work is worth it.
“I love it,” he said.
In addition to nonprofits, AmeriCorps members are also essential to the region’s most recognizable public service: state and national parks. With rangers spread thin among multiple parks, members provide critical, and beloved, services at state parks. They plan events, run educational programming and oversee scientific studies, which park staff often can’t do while keeping up with maintenance tasks.
“There’s a need in the community,” said Emma Kelsick, a member who works at Flathead Lake State Parks. “There is a need to have AmeriCorps members at state parks.”
It’s hard to imagine the area’s state parks without AmeriCorps’ presence. At Lone Pine State Park, members Kyle Gallaher and Juliana Himmel run educational programs for children and adults. Nearby, in the cluster of state parks around Flathead Lake, Kelsick and Parks likewise run educational programs and events.
Although working in the parks isn’t easy, with an unconventional schedule, the members there are enthusiastic.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Kelsick said.
AmeriCorps members in state parks have close contact with the natural beauty that draws many of them from across the country to work here in the Flathead Valley. Many members, from places as distant as Pennsylvania or Indiana, choose programs in Montana because of that beauty. Parks, who is from Wisconsin, has wanted to live here since she took a road trip to the area a few years ago.
Andrea Getts, who works with Farm Hands – Nourish the Flathead, a nonprofit that helps low-income people access fresh, locally grown food, is one of the few members originally from the Flathead. She’s wanted to move back since she left Montana for college.
“I just love Montana in general,” she said. “It’s the best state, in my opinion.”
She understands why members from elsewhere might want to stay here after their term is up.
“A lot of people who come here from the South or the East Coast actually end up staying because they love it so much,” she said.
AmeriCorps members blend so seamlessly into the services in which they work that they are often identifiable only by the AmeriCorps crest on their shirts: a bold-faced “A” encircled by a black band. Once you start to notice them, they seem to appear in the most unexpected places. They’re the hidden helpers who ensure that some of the Flathead Valley’s most indispensible infrastructure works. Beyond expanding small nonprofits and filling out understaffed services, they bring an influx of new ideas to better serve the community. And they do it all on a low stipend, in a program with little name recognition.
“It’s amazing how many [AmeriCorps] programs there are here,” Parks said. “I keep finding different programs, and it’s really exciting.”
The AmeriCorps crest appears all over the Flathead — on the arms of park rangers leading hikes, staffers cleaning up trails and workers unloading crates of food at community centers.
Everywhere you look, Parks said, there’s “another one!”