In the time that I’ve been in Marlinton, West Virginia, I have learned so much about myself. And I’ve been able to challenge many of the thoughts and ideas that I had when I first came into this experience. Every single day, I grow more and more in love with the person that I am becoming, my true self. About two and half years ago (my last semester as a junior in college), I thought I’d take a gardening course because it sounded like fun and I wanted a break from the animal science course load. I had convinced myself for so long that I wanted to be a veterinarian. So, when that dream started showing cracks and I didn’t know how to fix it, I felt utterly lost and hopeless. Little did I know, when I took that gardening class, that the trajectory of my entire life would shift so abruptly and yet so perfectly. As serendipitous and exciting as it felt to realize my passion and to change my major, it was nerve-wracking to tell my family. A part of me wishes that my past self had a glimpse into my life now as it would’ve calmed the uneasiness of telling them. As stressful and disheartening as it was, I’d go through it all over again just to be where I am today.
MY CHOSEN FAMILY
Through my time here, I had been able to establish and nurture unique relationships with the people around me. From those that I worked with in the forest service to my co-intern, Caroline, and my numerous roommates.
However, the greatest connection that I made was with my roommate, Michael. Being the incredibly funny and cool guy he is, it was inevitable that we would be good friends. Our personalities clicked so well and felt complementary to each other that he quickly became one of my best friends and also like the big brother I’ve always wanted.
I find it necessary to highlight and emphasize the relationships that I developed during my program because they played a key role in how positive my experience was.
While I wasn’t subjected to overt racism, I did encounter microaggressions that left me feeling upset, singled out and alone at times. I would be lying if I said that I was surprised by it. It was rural West Virginia after all. Without their love and support, my time in Marlinton might have been sullied by those few awful moments. I feel incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by such kind and compassionate individuals who were always there to listen and be allies.
While my many friendships were indeed bright spots in my internship, the work that Caroline and I were able to do brought me excitement and so much pride. After having done one odd job after the other during and in between semesters, I had never known what it was like to do something that gave me purpose. Never had anything afforded me the feeling of being a part something bigger than myself. This program allowed me to grow and discover my spark. A spark that has expanded into a wildfire that fills me and pushes me to do more.
My future feels so much brighter now than when I first got to West Virginia, which feels like a century ago. While I’ve since left the state to spend the holidays with family and to head back to Florida, I’ll actually be returning a lot sooner than anticipated. Just two days before we rang in the new year, I was offered a position with Appalachian Headwaters, a non-profit organization that we worked closely with during our program to process and store our seeds for the forest service! I’ve been buzzing with excitement since and I cannot wait to see what is in store for me.
Much of October and November was dominated by the drive to go out and collect seeds. Lots of it. We got to explore so much of what the Mon has to offer. We’ve experienced the glorious changing of the colors as we eased into autumn. Never had I seen so much life… which is odd given that I’ve always thought it signified death. Those days will never leave my mind. I felt so incredibly lucky to have been able to go out every day with my co-intern-turn-closest-friend and collect seeds. I’ve also had so many more opportunities to visit Spruce Knob, Dolly Sods and many other unique places to collect.
We were fortunate enough to be surrounded by so many wonderful people who were excited to collect with us. We were able to coordinate a number of collection excursions with insightful and hopeful individuals who wanted to either learn more or simply have a good time outside collecting seeds and having good conversation– or both!
While collecting is a great way to connect with others, we are also actively sowing seeds for the future. We’ve been able to show the old and new AmeriCorps interns the ropes so that they can continue to seed collect and process for the ongoing restoration efforts across the Mon.
By the time December came around, I could feel time slow and the reality of my program’s impending end date floating around my brain.
As our time here in West Virginia began to unwind, I also started feeling the pressure to finish processing all of our seeds. I coped with the low-grade stress by creating lists and personal goals for myself to hold on to for the coming month. Along with help from Caroline, I enlisted the aid of the AmeriCorps interns who have helped move along efforts to process all of the seeds collected through the summer and fall.
In the midst of all this processing, I’ve been able to engage myself and get involved in other ways. In early November, Caroline and I were interviewed and featured in the Pocahontas Times, the local newspaper. A couple weeks later, I was tapped to talk about the CLM program and the work we’ve accomplished to a leadership board (composed of all the district rangers across the Monongahela National Forest). Presenting in front of the rangers was nerve-wracking enough but having to present without Caroline compounded my anxiety. Nevertheless, I persevered and received a lot of positive feedback that reassured me. And at the beginning of December, the AmeriCorps (who are also my roommates) and I built a float for this year’s unique drive-in Christmas parade! It was yet another great opportunity to get involved with the community and it was so great to have the support of our district ranger, Cindy Sandeno and a few other forest service members.