A way forward
Author: Cliff Collins
Posted: June 4, 2019

Veterans are getting internships on public lands through a program founded by alumnus Brendan Norman.

“WANTING to go to work. That is how I wake up every morning,” said U.S. Coast Guard veteran Justin Spedding when he was an intern in the Deschutes National Forest. “I have never felt that way about a job.”

Spedding is not alone. He and more than 200 other military veterans have found a passion and a place in the world through VetsWork, a career development program that places them in internships with national forests and other public lands agencies.

VetsWork is an AmeriCorps-supported program of Mt. Adams Institute, co-founded in 2011 by alumnus Brendan Norman MEd ’02. Norman is executive director of the nonprofit organization, located in Trout Lake, Washington. Its mission is to connect people to the natural world not only through career development, but also with educational, service learning and research programs. 

Soon after the institute’s establishment, AmeriCorps identified veterans and military families as a priority focus and wanted to support organizations that help that population. In 2012, Norman applied for and received a grant to develop a program. VetsWork was officially launched in 2014 with 22 participants in Oregon, Washington and Missouri.

“This was the start,” he says. “We’ve been funded through AmeriCorps ever since based on the success of the program.” He adds that all the federal natural resource agencies support hiring veterans, and “that’s why our program is such a good fit for them, as it helps them prepare qualified veterans for permanent positions.”

As for the benefits for the veterans themselves, “Everyone has different needs,” he explains. “You could talk with 10 different people in the program and hear 10 different stories of what they get out of it. Some would talk about career opportunities, some just about being in the outdoors, and some about seeking a sense of purpose or working for the greater good.”

THE VETSWORK program provides two different paths: 45-week internships with public lands management agencies nationwide, or a 12-week firefighter training program in the Umatilla National Forest. Interns receive a $300 weekly stipend, basic health care coverage, student loan deferment, an education award to seek further training, and access to GI Bill benefits. That latter benefit “is often the deciding factor that allows veterans to participate in the program,” says Norman.

Not all vets work in the woods. The program also offers internships in an office setting—say, writing news releases or crunching numbers. Other interns may want to do more technical work such as compiling endangered species surveys as a biological technician. The range of opportunities is vast, he says.

For instance, Elamon (White) Barrett, 28, began a new job in February handling timber sales for a ranger district in the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina. She credits VetsWork, where she completed two terms as an intern in a different ranger district in Sumter. “All my life I have always been in love with the outdoors, and I feel that I have found my calling,” she says.

“It’s absolutely amazing the opportunity I was given through the program. It gave me that foot in the door. I did the legwork, but they gave me the opportunity to get where I am today.”

Barrett served four years in the Navy as a lieutenant after completing a Navy ROTC program in college. She chose that route because of its scholarship opportunity, but it came with a post-college commitment of four years. She acquired management experience, but wasn’t happy with what she was doing. After completing her obligation, she searched the internet for the next step, which is how she discovered VetsWork. 

The work was physically demanding: Barrett often had to bear a heavy backpack for miles and carry a 25-pound chainsaw while maintaining trails and campgrounds. But she also was responsible for greeting and assisting visitors, and through that role she gained her most rewarding experience: teaching others the skill called “leave no trace.” She obtained a Leave No Trace Master Educator certification and now represents South Carolina as the statewide advocate for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

Barrett says this experience “fueled my fire to get a permanent position” with the Forest Service, because she knew that the agency had pioneered the leave no trace concept, which could make a difference for future generations. “It’s just incredible to think that I, as one person, can truly make an impact on environmental conservation and the preservation of our public lands,” she says.

The institute cannot guarantee a job is waiting for all who complete the program, says Norman. Instead, vets should think of their time as “a 45-week job interview” and a chance to learn new skills as well as develop professional networks, which can be a key to finding a job. However, a large majority of veterans who successfully complete the program are offered permanent employment. As with Barrett, often these jobs are in the same places where the vets interned, but could be anywhere in the country.

SURPRISINGLY, Norman, 45, is a born-again nature lover. Raised as one of eight children on a 40-acre Michigan farm with cornfields and a swamp forest, Norman and his siblings spent their days outside—playing, doing chores, taking care of livestock. Although this may sound like an idyllic existence to city folks, it wasn’t what Norman had in mind. “I wanted to be inside, playing video games like other kids,” he admits. 

His outlook changed when he moved to Portland in 1996. The Pacific Northwest’s strong environmental and outdoor culture—a stark contrast to his Midwest upbringing—grabbed hold of him and has never let go. 

The Notre Dame graduate’s first work experience in Oregon was as an AmeriCorps member assigned to a Portland middle school. Norman enjoyed interacting with young people, as well as developing relationships with families, counselors and teachers. He decided to return to school, earning a teaching certificate and a master's degree in education from Portland State.

After making contacts at an annual meeting of AmeriCorps volunteers, he landed a job in Trout Lake with Northwest Service Academy, which was then sponsoring 500 young adults working in the environment.

When the academy lost its funding and dissolved, Norman had by then established what he calls “10 years of building partnerships,” which he and a handful of others from the academy parlayed into the formation of Mt. Adams Institute, which also works with K-12 students in its residential summer camp. He and his wife, Margo Burtchaell, and their two teenage children wanted to remain in Trout Lake, so forming the institute allowed them to do that. His kids regularly hike, ski and kayak, but Norman cheerfully acknowledges that “the draw of social media and screens is a constant challenge.”

The institute plans to expand VetsWork by at least 70 percent in 2020 and is awaiting the official confirmation of a new three-year AmeriCorps grant to do it. This will allow more veterans like Justin Spedding the opportunity to wake up to a job they love. Today, Spedding is an environmental planner with the Colville National Forest in Eastern Washington.

Cliff Collins is a Portland freelance writer.

(Above left) Former Navy lieutenant Elamon Barrett was a VetsWork intern in the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina where she now has a job handling timber sales.

(Bottom) Alumnus Brendan Norman brings his love of the outdoors to work every day as executive director of the Mt. Adams Institute. Photo by Erica Bingham.