AmeriCorps environmental program at UNI continues to grow

The largest environmental AmeriCorps project in the state, operated out of the University of Northern Iowa, is getting bigger.

Green Iowa AmeriCorps, run by UNI’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education, recently received a $1.1 million federal grant that will fund thousands of statewide community environmental service projects. It’s the largest grant in the program’s 13 year history, which will allow it to partner with more organizations statewide and hire more national service members than ever before.

The three-year grant from AmeriCorps will support 114 service members who will partner with 24 organizations across Iowa to carry out projects in residential energy efficiency, environmental education, land restoration and water quality.

“The program will further highlight the environmental issues that the state of Iowa faces, while also providing boots-on-the-ground, paid experiences for individuals to be a part of as AmeriCorps members,” said Carmen Finken, program manager for Green Iowa AmeriCorps. “Our AmeriCorps members will successfully address identified environmental community problems in Iowa, including the financial burden created by high energy costs, lack of energy efficiency resources for residents and school districts, and increasing water quality and quantity issues impacting Iowa communities.”

Service members across the state will provide free residential energy efficient services, plant trees, remove invasive species, clean rivers, educate K12 students on the environment, and much more, while gaining valuable experience contributing to the overall health and sustainability of the state. Projects typically focus on three areas: residential energy efficiency, land restoration and water quality testing, and sustainability efforts in K-12 schools. 

It’s an employment opportunity that can lead to life-changing experiences. Current member and University of Iowa graduate student Erica Dodge helps teach a sustainability class to all the 8th grade students at the Clear Creek Amana Community School District, which is located seven miles west of Iowa City.

“Green Iowa has been a vital experience for me. It has allowed me to gain experiences I would have never gotten,” Dodge said. “By being a part of this program I feel that I am differentiating myself from other future teachers and making myself more marketable when I graduate. It is not only giving me teaching experience, but also field experience in a subject I love.” 

At the end of the first program year, AmeriCorps members will have completed 600 energy audit assessments for Iowa households, 400 weatherization retrofits for households or public structures, and 450 educational programs completed with 4,500 educational participants. In addition, the AmeriCorps members will leverage 2,750 volunteers who will be engaged in 380 service projects related to energy and environmental stewardship.

“Green Iowa AmeriCorps is one of the longest-standing, farthest-reaching and most impactful community engagement programs at the University of Northern Iowa,” said Eric Giddens, energy programs manager for UNI’s CEEE. “We are very proud of the work that Green Iowa AmeriCorps members have done across Iowa over the last decade to improve energy efficiency in homes, make schools more sustainable, and implement land and water conservation projects.”

The grant will be the third three-year funding package Green Iowa AmeriCorps has received since starting in 2008. The previous three-year grant will wrap up in August and engaged almost 320 members in thousands of statewide projects, including 59 UNI students and thousands of volunteers.

Many of the energy efficiency projects in the previous three years focused on low-income households, while school presentations on sustainability reached 12,000 Iowan students. The Land and Water Stewards branch of Green Iowa AmeriCorps conducted 750 educational presentations and 150 education programs related to water quality monitoring.

The start of a new grant period will also mark a welcome return to normal for the program, which was upended by the abrupt onset of COVID-19 last year. The global pandemic prompted a sharp pivot in programming, as members helped serve communities by delivering meals to home-bound seniors, packaging meals at local food banks and pantries, answering calls at crisis centers, assisting with childcare for first responders, and creating and distributing face masks.

“Last year, a lot of our educational programming took a hit, as several camps and other volunteer opportunities we were set to help out with were cancelled due to COVID,” Finken said.  “However, we're excited for the 2021 summer program and the ability to engage members in more in-person, hands-on work in their communities. We received an outpouring of applications for the summer term, with folks indicating their desire to be in-person, outside and engaged in meaningful service work.”

Green Iowa AmeriCorps is actively recruiting members both statewide and nationally. Positions are supplemented with a monthly living allowance, healthcare coverage, child care assistance, federal loan deferment, loan interest accrual repayment, professional development funding and a scholarship at the end of service. Interested applicants should email GIACrecruitment@gmail.com for more information or apply at greeniowaamericorps.org/open-positions.