What I Learned: 3 Lessons From a Year Working with WTA
Our WCC Americorps staffer reflects on her year with us.
by Rachel Wendling
Walking into the WTA office on my first day a year ago was a nerve-wracking experience. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had what it takes to spend a year working with one of my favorite local nonprofits. Am I outdoorsy enough to fit in? Am I too young? Is it okay that I spend a weekend or two (or five) bingeing on a new video game instead of embarking on a three-day backpacking adventure?
As it turns out, my fears were entirely unjustified.
My first-day jitters faded fast as I was introduced to all of the 30-plus staff members in the Seattle office. What I anticipated being a sea of REI catalog models turned out to be anything but. Even though they were part of the largest hiking nonprofit around, everyone I met had unique backgrounds, stories and interests. I met home brewers, ultramarathoners, roller derby competitors and even gamers. It didn’t matter how many peaks I had bagged or how many miles I could hike in a day. As long as I had a passion for trails, I fit right in.
My position as a trails and outreach specialist was the first of its kind at WTA, marking the first year of a continuing partnership with the Washington Conservation Corps. My role was also unique in that it worked in conjunction with many different programs at WTA, including the youth, trails and communications teams. From day to day, I might be breaking ground on a new trail, writing a blog on trailhead conditions, arranging events with our youth ambassadors or staffing a WTA outreach table. Having the opportunity to work on so many projects, and alongside so many great staff members, has been an immensely valuable opportunity for me, and hopefully for WTA as well.
It’s been a whirlwind year full of laughs, adventures and a mountain of hard work. I also learned a few things along the way.
I love hiking. I equally love strolling through city parks, grilling veggie burgers at backyard barbecues and embroidering on my balcony. It took me some time to start re-evaluating what “outdoorsy” really meant to me and how trails connect more than just a parking lot to a summit view.
Every WTA supporter I met had their own unique reason to join us. Whether they wanted to empower future generations of outdoor stewards, try their hand at crosscut sawing or just believed in the power of green space, they all understood how trails connect not only places but people.
Trail work is actually about the volunteers. I’m not going to lie. Trail work and I did not hit it off from day one. After hours of shoveling gravel and maneuvering powered wheelbarrows, I was pretty mystified at how so many volunteers came back time and time again. I came home with an aching back, sore feet and a layer of mud on my brand-new hiking boots. What did people see in this?
It wasn’t until my fourth or fifth work party that I truly caught on to the trail work craze. As I got on trail more and more, I started seeing familiar faces. I started understanding the importance of a well-made drain dip, and I started making friends.
I soon realized that the reason I was excited to wake up at 6 a.m. on a dreary January morning and drive to a trailhead wasn’t just to fix up a trail. It was to fix up a trail alongside a lot of amazing people.
Youth volunteers are pretty rad. Coming into WTA, I had minimal experience working with high school-age youth. I had no idea what to expect when 15 teenagers and I were thrown together on a three-day Youth Ambassador Summit along the shores of Gig Harbor.
Those 15 teens wound up being some of the most dedicated, thought-provoking and entertaining people I met during my time at WTA. Clocking just under 900 hours of volunteer service, the ambassadors spent their year presenting to hundreds of peers, leading school hiking clubs, attending outreach events, organizing work parties and beefing up WTA’s online hiking guide. Every youth I worked with made a long-lasting, positive change in their community and inspired me every day with what young people can accomplish.
Throughout my year with WTA, I have been amazed at how much this position has taught me and how much my teams and I have accomplished. Although my term is coming to a close, I know I’ll always have a home within the WTA community. And I’m excited to see how the partnership between WTA and the Washington Conservation Corps continues to grow in the future.