Undaunted is probably the best word to describe Katie Bernier. Whether the 22-year-old is talking about graduating with a very liberal arts degree from Florida State but ending up with a hands-on job that involves lots of trash collection and pays at about poverty level, or driving a glorified golf cart onto a short stretch of Neyland Drive, she tends to end her sentences with a shrug and a smile.
The vehicle is a John Deere Gator that seats two, and as Knoxville's newest greenway ranger, beginning in September, it's Bernier's job to drive it along the greenways from the east side's Morningside Park all the way to the Third Creek greenway that empties out in Bearden approximately behind the Earth Fare shopping center.
"There's no power steering, so it's tough to turn corners—it's like your car is turned off and rolling and you're trying to steer it," she says. "At one point on the greenways, I have to ride on Neyland for a little bit. That part is a little hairy, but I'm getting used to it." Shrug. Smile.
One of 40 full-time AmeriCorps members currently working for the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee, Bernier makes $12,100 for her year-long stint, receives health insurance benefits, and is eligible for an educational award of $5,550 for tuition and/or student loan repayments after completion of the program. Part of a joint project between the CAC and Knoxville's public service and public parks and recreation departments, she's the third to have the greenway ranger title, and splits her time between great outdoors and the City-County Building, where she also works on the recycling projects and other events like Earthfest at the direction of Solid Waste Project Manager John Homa.
With a handful of others, she rents one of what have come to be known as "AmeriCorps houses" in Old North Knoxville, because they accommodate the cyclical schedule of the AmeriCorps members and the restrictions of their income. She rides a borrowed bike to work and hopes to get her own soon. "I'm from a really small town in Florida, so this is really different, and there are lots of places I won't ride a bike, even though it's allowed," she says. "I wish there was a way I could somehow magically take a greenway all the way from Tyson or North Knoxville to the office."
There are problems in her striking range, though. Already she's spearheaded a cleanup project at Morningside Park that netted nearly 120 pounds of trash and a truckload of brush, and is helping reclaim the Tyson Park Community Nourishment Garden and get it ready to be overwintered. Part of her job is to come up with more projects, she says, and she's eyeballing more cleanups, invasive species removal, and perhaps some beautification work along the greenways.
Much of the rest of her time is spent on the Gator, picking up debris and looking for future projects to tackle with the volunteer streams she's creating, from the local 4-H to a group of Johnson University students to her fellow AmeriCorps buddies when they're not at their own jobs. "They all want to work on something that involves the Gator—everyone envies me for getting to drive it," she says with a smile.
She's always on the lookout for branches that need trimming and other dangerous debris, standing water, big clods of trash she can't get by herself. So far, she says, most of what she sees is pretty tame—the only sight she marvels at was a ways back from the trail on the Third Creek Greenway. "There were these cots and pallets and videotaping set up and people had been having big orgies there at night," she says without blushing. She didn't actually see the orgies—"I do all my driving in the day, there's no way I'd go back at night"—but is certain of her conclusions.
The city's already taken care of that matter, but there are others Bernier feels are within her realm—to diminish, if not solve. Litter, of course, is what she considers most preventable. "People just need to put stuff in the trash cans," she says, but admits that sometimes the trash cans aren't there. "They do have a way of getting stolen, oddly enough, often by the homeless," she says. "Parks and Recreation is trying to come up with a more sustainable solution, maybe planting the cans more permanently or something, and I'd like to help with whatever might make a difference."
This is all a far cry from Bernier's formal education—she's got a degree in Classical Civilizations, but as part of the burgeoning group of unemployed college grads, she's rolling with the punches. In fact, this experience may steer her to another career. "Everyone graduating now, the job market is really hard," she says. "I wasn't seeing any jobs, and I wasn't sure anymore what I wanted to do. I wanted to search for a purpose, somewhere I could do some good. Originally I was thinking Peace Corps, but I didn't want to go that far when I wasn't sure what I wanted."
The CAC here in Knoxville became the "perfect fit. I'm much more into environmental issues now. I'm learning so much. If this works out, I'm thinking about going back to school, maybe in ecology or conservation biology."
Once more she smiles, and shrugs, and then picks up a hoe and heads to the Tyson park garden with a glint in her eye.
To suggest a project or volunteer, e-mail Bernier at firstname.lastname@example.org.