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Less than 48 hours after the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West, Will Kruckeberg and Valerie Tamburri were on the scene, helping organize thousands of volunteers who seemingly descended on the town en masse to do whatever needed doing. Some estimates put their numbers at close to 5,000, an overwhelming influx for this little community of fewer than 3,000.
As part of the Texas Conservation Corps disaster response team, Kruckeberg, 20, and Tamburri, 32, hit the ground running. The Westfest Fairgrounds, where the predominantly Czech community holds an annual Labor Day weekend polka festival, became the staging area for receiving—literally—tons of clothing, food for people and pets, baby supplies, hygiene products, household items and just about every other immediate need of hundreds of displaced residents, some of them members of Hilco Electric Cooperative.
Out of the chaos of pavilions piled high with overstuffed cardboard boxes, household appliances and bulging black, plastic bags, Kruckeberg had to create order. He directed volunteers as they unpacked, sorted, organized and distributed necessities to long lines of shocked and weary West citizens.
Tamburri took charge of creating a makeshift dining hall with long tables of food—much of it straight from the kitchens of West neighbors and concerned folks in nearby towns—for citizens and volunteers alike. Tamburri was amazed at how the West citizens, even some who’d lost their homes, pitched right in. “I love this town. Everyone’s so nice and willing to help,” she says.
Kruckeberg and Tamburri landed in the middle of a maelstrom, and with skills learned in the Texas Conservation Corps, they played a big role in calming the waters.
By April 23, the crowds of volunteers were mostly gone, the warehouses were clearing out, and the TxCC team could take a breather before the next phase of their work: finding long-term replacement volunteers.
The Texas Conservation Corps, a volunteer service organization, is open to youths and young adults ages 17 through 32, with programs open to high school- and college-aged participants. Corps members can volunteer for disaster-response assignments, but more often state and national parks hire them on a fee-for-service basis to perform conservation and trail-building work. Volunteers receive a stipend of about $900 monthly. For every year of service, up to two years, they receive a college tuition stipend of $5,550.
Chris Sheffield, program director, explains that TxCC is a modern-day version of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which built state and national parks around the country, including Bastrop State Park.
“These young men and women are signing on to be a part of something bigger than themselves, just like the CCC boys did in the ’30s,” he says. “They’re gaining life skills, job training, and furthering their education, all while working for the public good on conservation and disaster- response projects across the region.”
Sheffield adds, “Just like it did for the CCC boys, the work changes the Corps members as much as the projects they complete leave their mark on the landscape. That’s the beauty of it.
“There are two great products that come out of the program every year. First, the conservation service projects make a big impact. Most of the trails at Bastrop State Park, for example, are open right now thanks to work of these crew members. [The trails were destroyed by wildfires in 2011.] However, the biggest product is the character building that happens in this program. After this kind of experience, you find a young person who better understands herself or himself as well as the landscape they live in. They’re good citizens who want to keep contributing to their country.”
Kruckeberg joined TxCC’s Disaster Response Team after completing high school in 2012 as valedictorian of his class at American YouthWorks’ Service Learning Academy in Austin, a charter school for at-risk students, many of whom have life challenges so daunting that school often takes a back burner.
Kruckeberg grew up on 170 acres outside Bastrop, where his family belongs to Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative. “I grew up in the woods and avoided the inside of a classroom,” he says. As a result, he received no credits for his unconventional education. But he was accepted at the Learning Academy, where classes integrate service with education, and where students are able to thrive in the nontraditional setting. There, students learn skills from changing tires to camp cooking to using a chain saw, all while performing valuable community-improvement projects and earning a high school diploma.
“This alternative to the traditional model of high school applies research documenting the link between service and motivation,” says Sheffield. “It addresses both lack of job training and education for at-risk youth and the lack of skilled workers in the market.”
Sheffield says he selects students from the high school for TxCC’s program based largely on motivation. “We aren’t looking for experience but a certain attitude, the ability to stick with something.”
In his second year with American YouthWorks, Kruckeberg volunteered to join a TxCC crew headed to Joplin, Missouri, to help with relief efforts after a series of deadly tornadoes in 2010. It was a big step for him. “Before that, I was no good at reaching out to people. But being thrust in that situation has really helped me. I was with 10 people I barely knew.” Now, he says, he enjoys getting to know people and has a newfound sense of confidence. “I also learned speaking skills, and how to lead volunteers and make sure they were safe and knew what to do.”
Kruckeberg and Tamburri joined the TxCC through different routes but for similar reasons. Tamburri, who joined TxCC when she was 27, grew up in inner-city Houston. “I was finishing school as a photographer and working as an assistant,” she says. “But being in an office made me crazy. So I went off on a three-month camping trip, and when I came back I found this posting for a job with Texas Conservation Corps.” She signed on and happily spent much of the next year working in state and national parks.
Before coming to West, Tamburri had participated in disaster-relief efforts in New York City after Hurricane Sandy in February and in Baytown after Hurricane Ike in 2008. She had never fully experienced small-town culture and being embraced by its citizens like she did in West. “This has been such a positive experience. All the people of this town are great. We had people who lost everything or were injured from the blast, and they were in there volunteering, handing out food to other people. Some of them said, ‘We’re used to giving; we’re not used to receiving.’
“I never lived in a small community, and it was really inspiring,” says Tamburri. “This is a learning experience for me. Everybody is so inviting and warm and helpful. They just jump in and do what needs to be done. You don’t have to ask them.”
For Tamburri, the TxCC experience has been life changing. “I’m more proud of the things I do these days and feel I have a more meaningful place in the world. My jobs before were just jobs.”
When Kruckeberg completes his second year with TxCC, he will attend Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, where he received a scholarship. He plans to study forestry and perhaps pursue a career in fire ecology.
“The Texas Conservation Corps is probably one of the greatest things I’ve been a part of, not only for the job skills, but it showed me where I wanted to go,” says Kruckeberg. “It gave me a sense of fulfillment that makes every aspect of my life better. Before, I was aimlessly doing what I had to do to get by, and now I want to go to college.”
Melissa Gaskill is a frequent contributor.
Carol Moczygemba is Texas Co-op Power executive editor.
For details on enrollment opportunities with American YouthWorks and the Texas Conservation Corps, go to americanyouthworks.org.
For more information about AmeriCorps, go to my.americorps.gov.