By Anna Miller
Greetings and salutations!
This is a letter of reflection for my first year of service with Missouri River Relief (MRR). To any future AmeriCorps members who plan on serving with MRR, I hope that you may use this reflection as a sneak peak to what might be in store for you. I don't know if any of my advice or experiences will be applicable to your interim, but I hope to offer what I can. When I applied for this position, I knew that it would be a year like no other. However, I didn't fully anticipate all of the challenges and opportunities service during a global pandemic would entail.
Jumping aboard an unfamiliar boat is always a special kind of experience. Jumping aboard an unfamiliar boat while the world around you is just learning how to navigate a once in a hundred year pandemic is strangely comforting. We can all get lost together.
How does one execute place-based education programming when it is impossible to bring the kids to said place? Where there's a will, there's a way.
Serving under Kristen Schulte has been an enlightening experience. She has perfected the art of flying by the seat of her pants with finesse. Kristen really knows how to stick the landing. The few months before I came aboard was full of cancelations; our education programs as they were could not operate at the height of a pandemic. Safety is imperative. The only program that had been developed specifically for these COVID times was a virtual summer camp called "Watershed Expeditions at Home." My first assignment was to revamp this program for the Fall season. I needed to learn how to write up a webpage. I also needed to keep the time I invested into the website to a minimum. After all, we had a brand new website to debut.
When serving with Missouri River Relief, you need to be prepared to wear a lot of different hats. I may be working directly under Kristen in the Education Department, but that doesn't mean I won't be needed at a cleanup or helping out with a paddler's race. You will be free to experience this organization to the fullest extent. Everyone here wants you to feel like you are gaining something from your service.
Photo taken during my first official clean-up in St. Charles. I spent over two hours picking up trash that had fallen from an overpass or had floated in from flooding. I even found a Shakespeare's Pizza cup submerged in the muddy riverbank!
Watershed Expeditions at Home ended up having a successful Fall run. With over 40 student participants who enrolled and participated in the virtual extracurricular activity.
Missouri River Relief (MRR) takes a breather during the winter months. And by breather I mean frantic preparations for end of the year events, preparations for next year's programs and, in this past year's case, preparations for moving offices. Kristen and I also worked on tying up any loose strings on the Exploring the Big Muddy: A Virtual Field Trip documentary.
By the new year, I started working on a set of lesson plans and virtual lesson presentations for the Columbia Public School district aimed at 4th graders. Two of these lessons were taught to nearly seventy 4th grade classrooms including seven Title I schools, with the other two lessons being uploaded to the Missouri River Relief YouTube channel as narrated PowerPoint videos. Currently, all four recorded lessons reside on the Missouri River Detectives resource page.
In the spring, we hosted free virtual presentations to local assisted living and memory care facilities in Columbia, MO. This was the first time that MRR had hosted an event with this particular audience in mind. Our past education programs were largely aimed at school-aged students or conservation-minded cleanup volunteers and did not factor in the wider community. I also helped to build the Missouri River Explorer Badge program available to all ages and designed to reward engagement with cleanup and education-based events.
Outside of programs and events, I worked to improve MRR’s outreach by creating our Twitter account. Twitter is a hub for many of the local area’s teachers and education administrators, which allows MRR to better communicate and understand how the community is responding to new programs and events. The most important project, however, was the formation of a volunteer work group explicitly made to create an Equity, Inclusion and Cultural Relevance (EICR) Action Plan for MRR.
The work group was formed from a pre-existing Education Advisory Committee plus some other volunteers who had experience creating such action plans. Throughout the spring, myself and the work group members reached out to members of the community and experts in the field of diversity and inclusion and invited them to join a series of three virtual discussion sessions.
I designed the discussion sessions to both introduce MRR to new faces who kindly afforded us their time and to help the work group members approach the topics of equity, inclusion and cultural relevance in the field of conservation with an external viewpoint. Many of our guests were unfamiliar with MRR, but very knowledgeable about how to help this organization improve its practices with regards to race, gender, sexual orientation and the inclusion of experiences for people with disabilities. Following this discussion series, I compiled the feedback and created the Action Plan draft outline that is to be completed later this year - during my second year of service with MRR.
The summer of 2021 was spent focused on finding ways to provide fun boat rides to local Missourians, many of whom had never been on the Missouri River before clambering aboard for our trip, and running our new programs. Mornings at the River was an education program designed for 0-5-year-olds and their families designed and run by Kristen and myself.
The goal was to bring families with young children and infants closer to the Missouri River, which is notoriously seen as dangerous and not a place for recreation in the local area. This program was hosted on Tuesdays and Thursdays along the riverbank of the Missouri River at Cooper's Landing Campgrounds & Marina and was free to all during the month of June. Hundreds of families registered for the event and those who attended expressed their gratitude for the activities, play zones and special guests that we were able to bring together in order to get families outside and having fun at no cost to them.
Photo of me as a deckhand for one of the early educational boat trips. Notice how bundled up everyone is on the river!
By the end of June, Big Muddy Boat Rides were still ongoing and I was working on rewriting a new season of Watershed Expeditions at Home. Thanks to generous donors, we were able to provide financial aid to many of those who registered. While smaller than previous renditions of Watershed Expeditions at Home, we had some of my most memorable conversations with the summer camp kiddos.
And so, my first year serving at MRR concluded by wrapping up a few of the programs Kristen and I had started earlier in the year. After much consideration, I opted to renew my service position. I am grateful for this experience and thrilled to have the opportunity to serve in this position a little while longer. Can't wait to see where this year takes us!