SKANEATELES — Katie Figura has no problem minding the gap year.
After graduating from Skaneateles High School in 2005, while her peers met their roommates during their freshman year in college, she jetted to Denmark as a Rotary exchange student and toured Europe. Last year, after commencement from Cornell University, Figura again bucked the trend and took a left turn as several of her friends accepted corporate job offers in Manhattan or prepared for the law school entrance exam.
Figura took a 10-month position as an assistant team leader with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, a service organization founded in the 1930s centered around the belief that civic responsibility is a duty of all citizens.
“I heard about AmeriCorps through presentations at school discussing gap year options for graduating seniors,” Figura said.
The program is a full-time, residential program in which 1,100 young adults, 18 to 24, serve nationwide each year. Ten- to 12-member teams work on projects that address critical needs related to natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, and urban and rural development.
In exchange for helping communities clean up streams or construct and rehabilitate low-income housing, members receive room and board.
Since arriving in Maryland, Figura wakes each day in a cabin in a Girl Scout camp, puts on a uniform and along with other members of her team, the Buffalo Five, begins her work day in the Susquehanna State Park.
The team eats breakfast together and by 8 a.m. boards a van and travels to a remote area of the park to work alongside forest rangers. Three mornings a week, the group greets the day by 6 a.m. with an hour-long physical group training session and then boards the van to the day’s work site.
“We’ve been planting, planting, planting,” she said during her hour-long lunch break. “At least 10,000 native species of hardwood trees.”
Soil and nutrient runoff caused a decrease in the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay water shed and Figura’s team is helping to populate the Susquehanna State Park’s forest’s with young oak and locust trees.
Once lunch is over, it’s back to work deep in the woods hauling, digging, lifting and sweating. Figura says she puts in a 40-hour work week, “at least.”
“I had this idea I was super adaptable because I’d been an exchange student and took cross-cultural communication classes at school,” she said. “But it was sort of a mental hurdle at first.”
A defining moment came when Figura realized the hard physical labor she put in every day is also the kind of work prisoners on work-release programs get to do, if they’ve earned the privilege. Only Figura gets paid, a $90 weekly stipend.
“I was having a very hard time transitioning through my first month with AmeriCorps and instead of listening to me whine, my father gave me positive advice on how I can make the best of the experience. It really helped,” she said. “So I realigned my thinking and I’m getting a lot out of it, it’s just a different type of learning.”
Figura earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial and labor relations a year ago. At the completion of her work with AmeriCorps, she will earn a $5,500 education award she can use to pay existing school loans or put toward tuition for graduate school. She has seven years to decide how to use the award and is considering pursuing a program in developmental sociology.
“I am really fascinated by the link between culture, government, societal structure and social inequality,” Figura said.
As the team’s media representative, Figura maintains the team’s Facebook page and Twitter account, writes numerous press releases and articles for local media and the organization’s newsletter and yearbook. She also writes a daily blog about her experience.
“I also have the responsibility of acting as the group’s liaison to our team leader, voicing any opinions or issues to her that she may not be aware of or that may be creating discontentment on our team,” Figura stated in an email correspondence.
In a few weeks, the Buffalo Five will relocate to the grounds of a summer camp in New Jersey. There, the team will work with inner-city youth enrolled in the camp. Working with people, instead of trees, will offer the opportunity for Figura to put elements of what she has learned as a member of AmeriCorps to the test.
“I have been able to see how many different realities exist across the country,” she said. “I have also learned to be more flexible and accepting of people.”
Not only has she gotten a good physical work out from putting in hard labor every day, Figura said observing how a governmental organization operates is insightful and has served to reinforce her philosophy about volunteering, or working for a modest salary, about $2.25 an hour plus room and board.
“I volunteer because I am a firm believer that if you want to change something, you should do something about it,” she said. “It is essential for people to volunteer because our society cannot afford to get everything done that it needs.”