HCLT AmeriCorp volunteer lends helping hand in community

Published in The Highlander, Jan. 20, 2022

Asheville native and Western Carolina University grad Stephanie Dillingham is spending her time post graduation in Highlands serving the Highlands Cashiers Land Trust maintaining trails and organizing educational efforts through AmeriCorp.

Dillingham graduated from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in 2018 with an associate’s degree in general science. She went on to graduate from Western Carolina University in 2021, with a bachelor’s degree in science, studying environmental science and geology.

“I had more of a rounded education at WCU,” Dillingham said. “I was able to concentrate my studies in geological chemistry.”

After graduation, she immediately joined the Appalachian Conservation Corps as a conservation crew leader, where she had to camp out in a tent for three months.

“They basically send you out in the backcountry with a chainsaw,” Dillingham said. “My crew was phenomenal, I couldn’t have asked for a better crew. It was absolutely wild living in a tent for three months in the backcountry of West Virginia.”

While in West Virginia, Dillingham spent her time trail building, invasive work, wetland restoration and mine land restoration.

“They basically clear cut the whole mountain because it was planted with invasive pine,” Dillingham said. “They call it slashing and then they take these gigantic machines and till up the ground. Our little crew was given little saddle bags of tiny native trees and a bunch of seeds and sent us into the slash. It was wild.”

Dillingham said she got into this field of work because of her goal of becoming a National Park Ranger.

“My whole goal working through college and first year at AB-Tech was to become a park ranger,” Dillingham said. “It is something that I have always wanted to do. I really like the educational aspect and working outdoors. I really wanted to work with AmeriCorp because they work well with the federal government. I have made some really lasting friendships through AmeriCorp.”

AmeriCorps sends man power and funding to communities across the country. Disaster response, opioid crisis, education – these are just a few of the causes where AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers have stepped up to strengthen their community.

Dillingham said she found out about AmeriCorp through Western Carolina University. Through her volunteering in college, she met Jim Chance, who is heavily involved in the trail organizations in Highlands.

“I think the first time that I heard about AmeriCorp was from a meeting that I went to for future rangers,” Dillingham said. “I volunteered all of the time during my time in college. Jim Chance asked me if I would be interested in working with him on one of his trail crews in January. So, I came up here to work and I co-led a crew. That was my first experience with trail work and I loved the area. I fell in love with Highlands. I went back to school and graduated and applied to several internships including the land trust one because it was in Highlands. Jim knew me and Gary Wein liked my experience in trail work, so this is how I ended up here.”

With the HCLT, Dillingham helps with environmental education, outreach, stewardship, trail maintenance and much more.

“I help with after school programs and mostly kid programs through the months,” Dillingham said. “I do a lot of conservation easement monitoring and a lot of GIS data collecting. Just learning a lot of the legalities around the conservation easements that we have. I basically run the community outreach and what that means is that I schedule and plan all of the volunteer days. I run a program by myself called the ranger program, which is like a boots on the ground program where I go out to the lands and raise awareness about what the land trust does. I do volunteer newsletters monthly and communicate directly with the university. I do some history walks and geology talks.”

One thing that Dillingham said she is doing to better serve the area is taking online Spanish courses to reach the Hispanic communities on the Plateau.

“I am trying to become conversationally fluent,” Dillingham said. “I want to reach the Hispanic communities here that a lot of people don’t realize we have. I came across so many people that were native Spanish people and felt like there was a big need in the area for a link.”

Along with her job at the HCLT, Dillingham said she takes pride in her second job, working on the weekends at Calder’s Coffee Shop in Highlands.

“I made that choice because I have to stay busy at all times,” Dillingham said. “When I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t really know what to do so I decided to work a second job. It was a really good decision. The owners are incredible people. I have met all of my friends through Calder’s. I discovered all of the locals through Calders and so I have made some really good friendships and just love them so much. Taking that initiative in involving myself in the town, I met so many amazing people.”

For those students in high school or college looking for a way to get into the conservation career field, Dillingham said joining the AmeriCorp is a great experience.

“Through AmeriCorp you get to work directly under people who have very specific skill sets,” Dillingham said. “It is a very big aspect for you to gain that experience. You get a good amount of professional development and you gain skills through it. If you can do AmeriCorp, you can make it. Being an AmeriCorp is not easy. Honestly, it is kind of one of those life changing experiences.”

For more information about AmeriCorp, visit americorp.gov.

Find more Alumni Success or News Coverage news.