SAFFORD — Some will be back and others are moving on, but all six of the Gila Valley’s AmeriCorps volunteers have worked to benefit the community while gaining experience.

“I started at the very bottom, pulling bindweed,” said Hayden Petitt, who has been volunteering at Our Neighbors Farm and Pantry (ONFP). “Being able to work up from that, learning how to work with PVC and minor electrical, how to work with animals and keep plants alive — just learning all the experiences and trades that come with operating a farm — is probably one of the most valuable things I’ve learned.”

In Graham County, AmeriCorps volunteers have helped grow the ONFP garden and education program; improved communication in the 4-H program; assisted the Gila Watershed Partnership’s native plant restoration projects; helped the community with nutrition education; and worked with cotton at the University of Arizona Safford Agricultural Center.

The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension places volunteers in partnership with other organizations. “I’ve wanted to impact the community in a larger way,” said Extension Director Bill Brandau, “so when we got the opportunity to get some AmeriCorps, I started hiring them.”

Starting with one volunteer, the program has grown to the present six. Brandau said the Valley will have eight volunteers next year, including three who are coming back. AmeriCorps volunteers receive a small monthly living expenses stipend and a $6,000 education award for 900 work hours. “What I’ve found is most of them just like to help their community,” Brandau said.

Jessica Flowers, who works with Graham County 4-H and has children in the program, is one returning, or recycling, AmeriCorps member. As a volunteer, she has expanded communication with 4-H members, maintaining the group’s Facebook page, sending mass texts and keeping up the online calendar.

“I’ll be able to continue what I’m already doing with 4-H and continue to watch it grow. I like being able to recycle so that I can continue that momentum,” she said.

Another volunteer, Trenton Haralson, started with the Cooperative Extension as an instructional aide, then moved on to the Safford Agricultural Center. At the Extension, Haralson wrote newsletters and reports on other volunteers’ activities. His work at the Agricultural Center, with Dr. Randy Norton, included ginning cotton, collecting seed samples and planting crops in other parts of Arizona.

“Without our AmeriCorps, we would not be able to do some of the things we get done,” said extension program coordinator Cindy Pearson. Pearson said Haralson and Destiny Driver have helped with the extension’s SNAP-ED and Catch nutrition education programs, adding that Driver is active in the summer lunch program and Haralson has helped with canning classes.

The six have not only helped the community but have also benefited personally.

“These past nine months with AmeriCorps have helped me emotionally mature,” Haralson said. “I found this job out of nowhere, and it ended up becoming something that grounded me more.”

“AmeriCorps was a chance to get back into being involved again,” said Janice Goodman, who helps grow and tend native plants at the Gila Watershed Partnership greenhouse. “My husband and I were very involved in the community, but then life happened. You kind of fade away from everything going in the community because you have to take care of other things.”

“I think AmeriCorps helped me realize how much more we can do,” said ONFP farm manager Janine Yellowhair Brown, another returning volunteer. Working together, Brown and Petitt have helped the farm thrive and managed the ONFP education program.

“I think maybe the most valuable thing is that I came from a community where we always help each other,” Brown said. “I thought I was going to lose that, but I feel like it’s the same; I found it here at Our Neighbors Farm and Pantry. Knowing that people are helping one another in the world makes me feel really good, and I’m glad to be part of that.”

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