The AmeriCorps program of Northwest Florida State College has been chosen from among 50 other Florida AmeriCorps programs as the first-ever Volunteer Florida “Program of the Year.” AmeriCorps Director Laurie Von Kaenel accepted the award during Volunteer Florida’s fall program directors meeting.
“I find myself extremely honored to receive such an important award,” said Von Kaenel. “I would like to recognize and thank Northwest Florida State College for hosting our grant, all the members who served and committed a year of their lives to ‘getting things done,’ and, of course, thanks to our partnering agencies — Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance and the Okaloosa and Walton County School Districts — for your support and dedication to our mission.”
The Volunteer Florida AmeriCorps Program of the Year award recognizes an exceptionally high-performing program. To be eligible, programs must maintain excellent retention, meet or exceed performance measures, appropriately and fully use grant and match funds, and go above and beyond the Volunteer Florida and AmeriCorps commitment to leadership, service and impact, according to Chester W. Spellman, CEO of Volunteer Florida.
Okaloosa and Walton counties have an active AmeriCorps team called the Northwest Florida Environmental Stewards. The team is hosted by NWF State College and funded through a grant from Volunteer Florida, the governor’s lead agency for volunteerism and national service in Florida.
Northwest Florida Environmental Stewards partner with Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA), a non-profit watershed organization, to achieve critical education and environmental restoration needs in the Choctawhatchee watershed. The flagship program of the AmeriCorps-CBA partnership is Grasses in Classes, a hands-on environmental education project for third- and fifth-graders in Okaloosa and Walton counties. CBA provides schools the equipment and materials needed to grow shoreline grasses in school-based salt marsh nurseries. While students tend the salt marsh nurseries throughout the school year, they are educated on the role of shoreline grasses in providing critical habitat and preventing erosion and water pollution. At the end of the year-long program, students travel to a restoration site along the Choctawhatchee Bay to transplant their matured shoreline grasses under the supervision of the AmeriCorps team.
“Before we partnered with AmeriCorps, the scope of Grasses in Classes was pretty limited,” said CBA Education Coordinator Brittany Tate. “With the AmeriCorps members to act as a mobile education unit, we have grown our Grasses in Classes program to reach over 2,200 students each month. We couldn’t reach those numbers without AmeriCorps.”
The Northwest Florida Environmental Stewards also participate in other environmental restoration activities such as oyster reef construction, exotic plant removal, and community outreach. “Being a member of an AmeriCorps team and working with CBA has allowed me to find myself by losing myself in service,” said Environmental Steward Josh Castle. “Whether it was teaching kids as part of Grasses in Classes or building oyster reefs in the bay, I felt I was really making a difference.”