Lyric Gibson never imagined herself using a chainsaw.

Now it’s one of her favorite things to do.

“I love climbing ladders and hammering nails into roofs, and using nailguns,” Gibson said with a laugh. And the giant tablesaw, forget about it. “I always thought I’d be afraid to use tools. In this round, I learned how to use different tools, and get used to the noises.”

“This round” refers to her work building houses with Habitat for Humanity in San Antonio, Texas, where she’ll be until the end of the month. She signed up for a 10-month commitment to AmeriCorps NCCC, the National Civilian Community Corps last June, after graduating from Montclair High School.

Gibson, 19, also never imagined sharing a tent or sleeping on mats with a roomful of other people because, she said, she was antisocial in high school.

But in Little Rock, Arkansas, she and the other 18- to 24-year-olds in her team slept on the floor of the theater in Wildwood Park for the Arts. Gibson had never gone to sleepaway camp, so sharing a space with many others was new for her.
“Here, I’ve felt like I can start over and be more open. I do more things that I thought I wouldn’t be comfortable doing back at school.

“People who knew me beforehand would think it was weird.”

In Little Rock, her job was to help restore the park, including trail building and weatherization.

If the park had had to pay for the restoration, Gibson said, it would have less money to allow low-income families to visit for free. If the park had to lay out the money for restoration, it would have less money to use for children in the area.

Participants accepted into AmeriCorps receive a living wage, board, and the opportunity to receive a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award upon successful completion of service. Gibson will graduate at the end of July.

She began her time with the “Triple Cs,” as they’re known, in a training program in Denver.

“Serving the country has always been very important to me,” said Gibson. “I want to give back.” Serving in the military had to be ruled out when she learned that having asthma disqualified her.

“New Jersey has lots of problems with asthma,” she said. In Colorado, where she was sent for several weeks of training, the air is so fresh she has had no problems with breathing at all.

When she has a day off, she puts in extra service hours by volunteering at a food shelter or another not-for-profit organization. On one day in San Antonio, she and her colleagues sorted through 21,000 tons of food, and created 1,700 meals for families who were not food secure.

AmeriCorps NCCC is a program of the Corporation for National & Community Service.

CNCS is slated to be eliminated in President Trump’s proposed budget.

Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for CNCS, said in an email that while Gibson serves in a national program, Montclair benefits from several local CNCS programs, including Jumpstart, which trains college students to serve as literacy and language coaches in early learning centers, and the Education, Environment and Community Outreach (EECO), which places AmeriCorps members in public schools and community and civic organizations. CNCS funding also supports programming in New Jersey for Senior Corps, which uses older volunteers.

The Morris Habitat for Humanity has an AmeriCorps NCCC team finishing a home in West Milford right now. The program provides Americans “an opportunity to exercise their civic duty by serving their country,” Warfield said.

More than 325,000 people serve in AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs.

According to the advocacy group Voices for National Services, total funding for CNCS is just over $1 billion per year, or .03 percent of the total federal budget.

Just this fall, Warfield said, the number of AmeriCorps volunteers passed the 1 million mark. Volunteers have served more than 1.4 billion hours, earning $3.3 billion in Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards, much of which has been used to pay back student loan debt.

AmeriCorps NCCC was founded in 1993, under President Bill Clinton, but it was President George H.W. Bush who got the project started, in 1992. AmeriCorps NCCC was inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the depression. Unlike CCC, the program is intended less as a way of providing employment than it is a way of providing services to communities that might otherwise be unmet.

Heather Dierck, community relations specialist for AmeriCorps NCCC Southwest Region Campus, said that the program looks for people who are flexible, want to work hard for communities, are respectful of diversity, and willing to put the needs of communities ahead of their own comforts.

“Fourteen years later, I still get goosebumps at graduation,” Dierck said. She pointed out that AmeriCorps alums are more likely than the average citizen to stay involved, and to have a career linked to service. Part of the pledge the students make is “this year and beyond,” she said. “They learn about themselves while they are developing into leaders, and take their skills out into the world.”

AmeriCorps NCCC
Lyric Gibson works on a house, with AmeriCorps NCCC. COURTESY LYRIC GIBSON

Of course, serving in AmeriCorps NCCC has its challenges. It’s not so much power tools, but more mundane things, that frustrate Gibson.

She is too young to drink, so when the older kids go to a bar, Gibson’s home with a book.

Then there was the time she slept across from a girl who talked in her sleep.

And packing for a climate she doesn’t know is a challenge. She doesn’t always know what the temperature is going to be like where she’s going.

People at home would say she’s changed, she said. In high school, she was often stressed. Here, she can be more independent, even a leader.

AmeriCorps NCCC
Chocolate French macaron tarts with lemon curd cream, topped with berries and a berry purée, garnished with shaved white chocolate, are Gibson’s own recipe. COURTESY LYRIC GIBSON

One thing that hasn’t changed is her love of food preparation: “I was very popularly known for baking,” she said. “I really like to give, without receiving anything back. I baked for my teachers and friends.”

She might have gone to culinary school had she not joined AmeriCorps NCCC. When it’s her turn to make dinner for her team, she’s made blinis and baked bread with mushrooms and asparagus.

Someday, she wants to work for Homeland Security and Intelligence. Whatever she does, she wants to serve. Seeing a house grow from the ground up and meeting the homeowners has been an emotional experience, she said.

“People say, ‘Thank you so much for building this house. You don’t know how much it means to me.’”

In high school, she had many things to focus on. Here “you expect to do one thing, so you’re always doing it. I don’t get tired. I’m excited about doing it every day.”