When Christian McGrath and Aletha Spang walked to the front of Jennifer Comiskey’s third-grade class one recent Wednesday morning, McGrath enthusiastically asked the students, “How much did you miss us?”
The room echoed with exclamations. “A lot!” shouted one. “Bunches!” yelled another.
McGrath, 25, and Spang, 21, are weekly visitors to the Bernardston Elementary School classrooms. As volunteers with AmeriCorps, the two teach students about various facets of the environment, including weather, topography, mapping, engineering and how animals adapt to survive winter months. After school, they also run an outdoors club.
McGrath and Spang are two of 18 AmeriCorps volunteers who reside in a bunkhouse at the Kenneth Dubuque Memorial State Forest in Hawley as part of an arrangement between AmeriCorps, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Massachusetts Service Alliance and the Student Conservation Association. AmeriCorps is a volunteer public service program supported by the federal government, foundations, corporations and other donors.
Locally, the group volunteers in pairs at roughly a dozen schools, Spang said, including Bernardston Elementary, Pearl Rhodes Elementary School, Northfield Elementary School, Rowe Elementary School and Colrain Central School.
Bernardston Elementary Principal Bob Clancy, a former principal at Rowe Elementary, remembered how Rowe Elementary was one of the first schools to integrate SCA volunteers, and brought the idea to Bernardston Elementary four years ago.
“I’m kicking myself for not having gotten them earlier,” said Clancy, who has been Bernardston’s principal for seven years. “These folks are just awesome role models for kids. … The teachers always come back saying they’ve learned something new.”