From Turtles to Trees and More: Connecting the Outdoors to Schools and Beyond

by Jessica Tierney

When I first heard about TerraCorps, I knew nothing about AmeriCorps or what a “service year” meant. I had also never heard of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, a nonprofit organization that helps protect forest and farmland in Franklin and Worcester Counties. As a former teacher in the throws of a career change into Environmental Science, TerraCorps, an AmeriCorps organization that pairs service members with environmental organizations, seemed like the perfect place to begin my exploration. Mount Grace also seemed like the perfect organization to serve with, as they were looking for a Youth Education Coordinator. The position would allow me to learn about my newly chosen career while using what I knew about the profession I had previously dedicated so much time to. Now it is February and I have been serving as Mount Grace’s Youth Education Coordinator (YEC) for almost six months. What started out as a simple curiosity about Environmental Conservation has turned into a soul-enriching experience for reasons that I never expected.

One of my goals this year as Mount Grace’s YEC has been to compile former YEC’s lessons into an organized curriculum that will serve grades K-4 in the Athol-Royalston school district. At the beginning of my service, I thought this would be my biggest accomplishment of the year. I started off with a sense of motivation and excitement. I taught pollinators to fourth graders, seed dispersal to second graders, and trees to first graders. As the months progressed, I began making visits to Kindergarten with Turtles and taking third graders outside for bird watching. Regardless of the grade level or topic, the students were always ecstatic; they exclaimed things like, “this is the best day of school this year!”, “why can’t we do this every day?!”, and, “I love these turtles!” Of course, hearing these statements and watching students become engaged with learning was magical and never failed to bring tears of joy to my eyes; but it was a commonplace joy I was used to from all my years of teaching. I had gone into this experience looking for something new and I had expected it to come from some new revelation I would have while teaching students- but it was the same joy I had always felt in a new environment. As the year progressed, I found out that my biggest accomplishment of this year will not be this new curriculum or the students that I teach. It will be something more personal that I can already feel happening. It is due to the change from working in an urban, indoor classroom to serving at a quiet, slow-paced, rural office. It is bringing with it an opportunity for personal growth that is changing my perspective on professional life. I now believe this shift will ultimately be my service year’s most profound achievement.

Part of this change has been brought on by the sense of community that this rural office has. At some point each week, there comes a time when we sit around the kitchen table at our office as a staff for a team meeting. It is always professional, of course, but it has a different feel compared to the meetings I have grown accustomed to in prior professional places. Before, meetings felt sterile, down-to-business, and dis-ingenuine. Ideas were spoken of, but they were not always listened to or cared about. People danced in their seats, bored, tired, and wanting to leave. In this new space, the meetings feel warm and welcoming. They are met with energy and excitement for the projects being discussed. There is a sense of ease around the table. No one seems to stay out of obligation and nobody takes it personally if anyone leaves early to attend to something more relevant to their professional life. Not to mention, there is a drawing my daughter made when she visited our office one day that one of the staff members hung up on the refrigerator, right in view of our meeting table. It reminds me daily that everyone genuinely cares about what is best for the team and for each other- not just about what looks good and what boxes must be checked. This is something I had never thought was possible or would have even hoped to find in a professional environment and yet here it is. It is the thing Education has been missing for me and I happened to walk right into it by accident, through this TerraCorps experience.

The camaraderie and welcoming atmosphere I have experienced at Mount Grace has caused me to rethink my professional environments of the past, to reflect on what my former expectations have been, and to consider what they could be in the future- more collaborative, more energetic and creative, and overall happier. It is something I did not even know was possible that I have been lucky enough to find at Mount Grace. I will never stop delighting in the excitement of wonderous children in the throws of new learning. They will always be a huge part of what drives me to do what I do- whether I continue on to work in Environmental Education or I switch to a role that involves more land stewardship, I will always consider children when I do because shaping children is my life’s calling. However, I now know that my work doesn’t always have to about emptying myself to fill children’s lives. I can now open myself up to the possibility of working in environments where I am filled up by my team and my community because that is what I have found at Mount Grace through my experience as a TerraCorps service member. It is not some big accomplishment that can be documented on paper or in mathematics, but it is changing my life for the best.

Jess served as a Youth Education Coordinator at Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust for TerraCorps 2018-2019