Summer AmeriCorps VISTA Brenna Fouts

Summer AmeriCorps VISTA Brenna Fouts

I had the honor of being selected as the AmeriCorps Summer Associate for the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council (RC&D). The goal of my ten-week internship was two-fold: I was to help with a survey about local foods as well as create and implement four lessons for kids about healthy eating habits. The task was daunting, to say the least. I really did not know what to expect when I came into the office on June 1. However, I leave the office now in August, ten weeks later, thankful for the opportunities I was given this summer. I formed many positive relationships and learned a great deal from the people I worked with. It was challenging, but it was a rewarding time of growth.

I really had no prior experience with constructing surveys, nor did I come equipped with much knowledge about local foods in Appalachia. I am from Illinois and have only lived in this area for the three years I have been in college, so I felt grossly underprepared for this half of my job. Thankfully, this is where my supervisor, Lexy, thrives. She is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about local food and helping connect farmers with consumers and local businesses. She created an online survey and gave me the task of finding people to take it. So I spent my Saturday mornings at various farmers markets in the area asking people, “Would you be interested in a survey about local food?” I was met with mixed reactions. Some people were more than willing to give me their emails; others were not. I could tell that some people genuinely cared about the local food movement and bettering the farmers market they were attending. I could also tell that some people only gave me their emails because they felt sorry for me. Regardless, I always gave myself a goal to gather a certain number of email addresses before I left. And I was always able to stick it out long enough to accomplish my goal. We have seen success with the survey thus far as well. More people than expected have taken it, and it is being shared on social media and around the community. I hope that from this part of my term, practical and useful knowledge is acquired.

The main chunk of my time was spent developing lesson plans on healthy eating habits for kids. I was given four sessions to teach: two at the Jonesborough Farmers Market’s Kids’ Days and two with local kids in Johnson City. I was given fairly fluid guidelines, and I spent several days just researching existing curriculum on nutrition and food in general. I found a number of awesome food science experiments and useful resources for teaching kids about the importance of what they put in their bodies.

I was in Jonesborough the last Saturdays of June and July teaching kids and helping them create. In June, we made ice cream in a bag, and it was a great success! I was expecting about eight or ten kids, but over twenty participated in my activity despite the weather being cloudy and a little chilly. The kids learned how salt lowers the freezing temperature of water, enabling the milk to change from a liquid to solid state (after a lot of shaking… mostly by the parents!). The kids were then able to top their hand-made vanilla ice cream with fresh market blueberries. Parents were also able to sample some fantastic goat cheese blackberry ice cream made by Lexy. It was WONDERFUL.

I had a perfect summer day for my second lesson at Jonesborough. It was hot and sunny, and we made solar ovens out of pizza boxes. It was fun to help the kids create their own ovens and watch the sun melt the cheese on their quesadillas. Many kids were not patient enough for the sun to melt it completely, but one girl left hers for quite a while and the cheese got so hot it was bubbling! It was a slower day for the market in general due to other events that were going on in Jonesborough, but I was not too disappointed with the Kids’ Day activities. I had the opportunity to talk with a volunteer at the market, a very sweet lady, for quite a while. She was quite encouraging to me, and it was actually a blessing that we were able to talk as much as we were. I think what I really appreciate most about the time I spent in Jonesborough and with the Farmers Market is the help and support I received. I felt like I was part of a community, working on a team of people who just want to see kids learn. It was a very positive experience, and I am blessed by the relationships that were established.

My other two sessions were a bit more challenging for a number of reasons. I was supposed to do two lessons at the Coalition for Kids, a nonprofit agency very near and dear to my heart. I was excited to teach the kids that I have worked with for two years, and I have such a passion for them. The summer program at Coalition is huge- over 150 kids! It is divided into two sites, with kindergarten through third grade at one site and the older kids at another. It was decided that I would teach the younger ones, which I was happy about. However, I quickly discovered how difficult it is to do anything productive with such a large number of kids! I went into that lesson at Coalition with lofty goals and a fairly clear and straightforward plan, but kids tend to make their own plans.

I broke the 90 minute session up into three, 30 minute rotations, thinking that twenty-five kids would be easier to wrangle than eighty. I taught about the five food groups and came up with a capture-the-flag-type game in which the kids created balanced menus and could run off some energy. It kind of worked, but it was definitely loud. My boss at the ARC&D, Emily, taught a station where the kids got to try new foods, like zucchini noodles and pesto. I really thought this would be everyone’s favorite station, because what kid doesn’t like to eat?! However, what we learned from this station is this: kids are picky. Also, it is unwise to give kids with nut allergies pesto made with nuts. The third station was taught by my dear, sweet friend Haley and consisted of the kids planting their own miniature terrariums in rotisserie chicken containers. (At one point this summer, I had 120 gallons of potting soil and 80 rotisserie chicken containers in the trunk of my car. Not many people can boast that!) They learned how they can grow their own food, and they seemed to enjoy playing in dirt.

As a whole, I was content with the turnout of my Coalition session, yet not overly thrilled. It was louder and a little crazier than I would have wanted, and at times it felt more like herding cattle than teaching kids. I left determined to come up with something better for the second time. Unfortunately, scheduling never worked out for me to come teach a second session with them. This was really disappointing to me, but I think it worked out for the best.

Since I was unable to return to Coalition, I was able to help out PATROL Camp instead. This is a camp for 9-14 year olds who live at the Johnson City Housing Authority and is part of the Targeted Community Crime Reduction Project of the Johnson City Police Department. I taught about 20 middle school-aged kids about Nutrition Facts labels, and then I was able to feed them a healthy lunch and hang out with them a little. I feel like this lesson was my most successful; these kids really seemed to understand the content. By the end of just one hour, they were able to look at a label and make better choices about what they are putting into their bodies. They seemed to genuinely enjoy the lesson, too, which was a huge encouragement to me! I was also extremely thankful for the opportunity to build a better relationship with the amazing police officers and staff working on the Targeted Community Crime Reduction Project. They truly are heroes in our community, especially to those kids they are serving.

Looking back, what a whirlwind this summer has been! I am so thankful that I was afforded this opportunity to be a Summer Associate with the ARC&D. I met some amazing people and was able to build relationships within the community that I probably would not have been able to otherwise. I was able to teach children and empower them with knowledge that they can use not only while they are young, but throughout the rest of their lives. I also learned so much about the local food community, conducting surveys, the Appalachian region, nutrition, and teaching kids. Some moments were very humbling and I felt so far in over my head. Some moments were more rewarding and fulfilling than I had hoped for or imagined they would be. This has been an unforgettable summer, and I am so grateful for my time with the ARC&D.