Journey of self-discovery

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Arthur is on an adventure.

More than four months ago, the small plush doll representing the aardvark in a PBS children's cartoon left his life as a cat toy in a Minnesota household and took to the road to see America. On his trip he's seen the wide-open skies of Montana, the mountains of Colorado, the farms of Indiana and fields of Kansas. On Friday he was tagging along on a mission to remove debris from Cape LaCroix Creek in Cape Girardeau.

Arthur is an honorary member of the AmeriCorps National Service, and an unofficial mascot of the eight young men and women who've come to lend their hands to help the community. But like Arthur, they are on an adventure that has taken them outside their normal lives.

These crew members all have different variations of the same story. They are all youths between ages 18 and 24 who, at a point of transition in their lives, chose to take a detour.

"It's led to a lot of self-discovery," said Barbara Heuchling, 20, of Green Bay, Wis. "It's been a chance to see what I was constituted of and see what I could do."

AmeriCorps is a grant-funded network of national service programs that seeks to meet public needs in education, public safety, health and the environment through the work of its members. Those members serve through not-for-profit, public and faith-based agencies and organizations. The work they do includes projects in environment, education, homeland security, human needs and disaster relief. Members serve in groups of eight to 14 for 10-month periods.

In exchange for their service, the youths receive a total living allowance of $4,000, paid room and board, limited health-care benefits, loan forbearance and an education award of $4,725.

This group now in Cape Girardeau comes from all over the country: Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia and Ohio. They are here for about 25 days at the behest of the Missouri Department of Conservation. During that time, they will gather seeds, conduct invasive species removal in Maple Hollow by Cape County Park North and construct primitive nets and tools for display at the Cape Girardeau Nature Center. Today they will continue Friday's work: removing debris -- including about 30 discarded tires -- from Cape LaCroix Creek.

Tire brigade

Christina McCall has stepped into an oversized, rubber wading pullover, struggling to get her feet to fit in the boots. Looking down at herself, she can hardly believe what she sees.

"I never did all this country stuff," McCall said with her thumbs wrapped around the shoulder straps of her waders.

When she joined the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps nine months ago, she was a 20-year old girl from Dallas, Texas, who was putting off enrollment in college while trying to figure out who she was and what she wanted to do with her life. Even living in Europe for a time did little to help her find herself. The last place this self-described "city girl" pictured herself was up to her to armpits in cold, muddy water, pulling old tires from a creek in Southeast Missouri.

"AmeriCorps has helped me stretch myself beyond the limits I'd put on myself," she said.

In the past nine months, McCall and her crew have helped facilitate a controlled fire in Minnesota, maintained a trail atop a 14,000-foot Colorado mountain and taught children at a Boys and Girls Club in South Dakota. The only thing this once-meek city girl isn't sure she can do is go back to the big city. She said she's now ready to go to school and study the environment, which this adventure has helped her better appreciate.

"We'll just see where this path will take me," McCall said.

Down at Cape LaCroix Creek, the crew devised a way to overcome the problem of a steep, 10-foot embankment.

With two members down in the water pulling the tires from the murky creek, another member waited, crouched on the muddy slope, secured by the outstretched hand of another member standing firmly on the bank. The tires are then passed from creek to slope to bank. Once on the slope, team leader Justin Kimmons took the debris to a pile on the parking lot beyond.

Kimmons is in his second tour with AmeriCorps. The corps has taught him how to understand and work with people.

As a black raised in New Jersey, Kimmons said he grew up with certain prescribed notions of people from different races and places. Actually getting out to see different people in different parts of the country has opened his eyes and his mind to different ideas he hopes will serve him in life.

Kimmons also said he's formed lifelong friendships with the different people he's met. He hopes to stay in touch with as many of them as possible after this group graduates in late November.

At that time, these youths will take their new perspectives and go their separate ways, to college, graduate school or into their careers.

And as for the stuffed Arthur doll ...

"We'll mail him back to Minnesota," Kimmons said.

335-6611, extension 137

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