BEMIDJI -- For the first time since 2018, Concordia Language Villages welcomed AmeriCorps NCCC members to its cultural oasis.

During their one-month stay, Sept. 20 through Oct. 13, the seven volunteers assisted in clearing storm debris along trails, clearing and restoring hiking trails, revitalizing building exteriors and constructing a new deck on its grounds.

Originally from Florida, California, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, these AmeriCorps NCCC members came to Bemidji as part of their fourth project in their volunteering season.

A 10-month commitment, AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps members address critical needs related to natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, and urban and rural development.

NCCC service projects operate through partnerships with non-profit organizations, state and local agencies and other community and faith-based groups.

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AmeriCorps volunteers Winter Saeedi, Kevin Wang and Matthew Ellys clear a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, along Buck Lake in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
AmeriCorps volunteers Winter Saeedi, Kevin Wang and Matthew Ellys clear a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, along Buck Lake in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

One of the projects the AmeriCorps volunteers worked on during their time at Concordia Language Villages was replacing rotten planks on a boardwalk bridge along a hiking trail. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
One of the projects the AmeriCorps volunteers worked on during their time at Concordia Language Villages was replacing rotten planks on a boardwalk bridge along a hiking trail. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Each project lasts around two months, though this current session is split in half between the Concordia Language Villages project and an Iowa project that the team will begin later this week.

The team members don’t know where they’re headed until around two weeks prior to leaving and sometimes will have smaller projects in between sessions. For example, this group spent 10 days in New York City volunteering for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in August.

“They don’t tell you upfront which campus you’ll be at or where you’ll go for projects (when applying for AmeriCorps),” California native and AmeriCorps member Winter Saeedi said. “Everyone here who applied at the same time knew we’d be going to the north-central region, midwest or upper east, but we don’t have an initial say of where we go for projects.”

Marty Fankhanel, associate director of programs at Concordia Language Villages, detailed how the team has been restoring their trails to become interpretive sites to educate visitors about different cultures and languages.

“Some (trails) were built 15 to 20 years ago and over the years have become overgrown or trees have fallen down in their path,” Fankhanel said. “It’s absolutely excellent to have this team work with us to clear those trails to use as language learning spaces.”

AmeriCorps volunteers Kevin Wang and Winter Saeedi clear a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
AmeriCorps volunteers Kevin Wang and Winter Saeedi clear a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

AmeriCorps volunteer Matthew Ellys clears a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
AmeriCorps volunteer Matthew Ellys clears a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Working with the Corps

When AmeriCorps volunteers came to Concordia in 2018, their main objective was constructing a retaining wall to reduce erosion and building steps at the German village.

At that time, Fankhanel was a seasonal staff member at the villages with prior AmeriCorps experience having been a member himself. This partly fueled his desire to collaborate with the organization this year, just on the other side of the equation and in a full-time role he picked up in 2020.

“I was really motivated because I personally know how meaningful (AmeriCorps) service is,” Fankhanel said. “I’m excited to highlight the Concordia Language Villages to the team and to see how amazing and unique the Bemidji area is.”

AmeriCorps volunteer Madison Hammock saws through a log on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, as the volunteers help to clear downed trees in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
AmeriCorps volunteer Madison Hammock saws through a log on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, as the volunteers help to clear downed trees in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

The team also has Pat Bradley, construction and special projects coordinator, as their onsite supervisor during their stay.

“Having seven extra sets of hands is incredible,” Bradley said. “We could have (the AmeriCorps team) out here for a year and keep them busy.”

The team’s arrival couldn’t come soon enough as Fankhanel mentioned, “the trails we’ve been working on have been deferred projects for multiple years. After this past year of being short-staffed, being able to catch up on certain projects has been huge for us.”

Some of the team members are using this experience to fill a gap year between high school and college, noting that each member receives a scholarship after completing their service.

Others have finished college and wanted to travel and take time away from remote work this past year, hoping to immerse themselves in other parts of the country.

AmeriCorps volunteer Brianna Millsaps helps load logs on a trailer on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, as the volunteers clear downed trees in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
AmeriCorps volunteer Brianna Millsaps helps load logs on a trailer on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, as the volunteers clear downed trees in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Bemidji experiences

Having been to Indiana and Ohio prior to Bemidji, the team spoke the city’s accolades in terms of its Indigenous influences, scenery and warmer-than-expected temperature.

“I enjoy seeing the lakes and foliage, and it’s also cool to see the influence that Indigenous culture has in the area,” Pennsylvanian member Chad Jiles mentioned. “It’s been warmer during our stay than we expected. We brought big, heavy jackets and everything and we haven’t had to put them on one time.”

AmeriCorps volunteer Chad Jiles carries a log to a trailer on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, as the volunteers help to clear downed trees in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
AmeriCorps volunteer Chad Jiles carries a log to a trailer on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, as the volunteers help to clear downed trees in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Learning to operate chainsaws and preparing meals while speaking French, per Fankhanel’s instruction, are a couple of the team’s favorite experiences during their normal workday.

If that wasn’t enough, the team has volunteered with several local organizations including the Bemidji Community Food Shelf and Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society during their downtime.

Along with volunteering at the Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon that took place Oct. 8 and 9, three members actually ran it.

Tennessee native Brianna Millsaps placed 31st overall out of 234 participants and fourth out of 20 in her age group with a time of 28:12 for the 5K. In the same race, Saeedi placed 10th overall and second out of 20 in her age group with a time of 24:26, and Indiana native Kevin Wang placed third overall and first in his age division with a time of 22:12.

AmeriCorps volunteer Winter Saeedi clears a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
AmeriCorps volunteer Winter Saeedi clears a trail on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, in Concordia Language Villages. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Other downtime activities have included enjoying the sauna and trails at the villages, checking out downtown shops, visiting the fire tower in Blackduck and getting their fair share of Dunkin’ Donuts and Cantabria coffee.

“It’s really great for (the AmeriCorps team) to meet people from around the United States not only when doing different projects but as a team,” Fankhanel said. “They get to work with people of the same mindset of ‘let’s explore the area where we’re at and help each other figure out what’s next after this experience.’”

AmeriCorps NCCC applications are open to young adults ages 18-26. More information can be found at www.americorps.gov.