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Written by Carol Pomeday   
Wednesday, 01 September 2010 15:25

Two Port Washington college students undertook volunteer projects that changed their lives.

Amanda Reininger, a 2006 Port Washington High School graduate and senior biology student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, traveled through remote areas of Alaska for 10 days this summer to band and take blood samples from gyrfalcon, golden eagle and rough-legged hawk chicks that were in nests on volcanic craters.

The rest of her summer was spent at the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center in Poynette. She cared for rehabilitated wildlife that are unable to survive in the wild.

Reininger will graduate in December with a degree in biology and minors in geology and religious studies. She may return to Alaska for graduate studies with a focus on field research.

Dan Ziebell, a 2005 Port High graduate who earned a degree in biology from UW Madison in June 2009, spent the last 10 months with AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps.

He wielded a chainsaw to restore a prairie near St. Louis, Mo., built Habitat for Humanity houses in New Orleans, was a mentor for inner-city children in Houston and lived in impoverished areas.

The experience made him want to become a family doctor. He plans to take the medical school entrance exam in the spring.

Amanda: studying raptors in Alaska

She lived in tents in remote areas of Alaska and carried a 60-pound backpack on six-mile hikes, often traversing treacherously steep and slippery volcanic cliffs to study baby falcon, hawk and eagle chicks.

Amanda Reininger, 22, of Port Washington, said it was the best experience of her life.

“It turned out to be so much more than a trip studying birds. It was a life-changing experience,” she said.

“I realized how much needs to be done on studies and how much I love the outdoors. I didn’t want to leave. Out there, you don’t hear anything at night except the mosquitoes against your
tent or a loon or other birds calling.”

Reininger, a senior biology student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, initially wasn’t chosen as one of 10 students to assist Travis Booms, a UW-Stevens Point alumnus, in his field research on the gyrfalcon population in the Ingakslugwat Hills region of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. UW-SP biology professor Robert Rosenfield accompanied the
students.

When one student dropped out, Reininger eagerly stepped in, but admitted she had second thoughts when she saw the bush plane that was going to take them from Bethel, Alaska, to their destination.

The four-passenger plane turned out to be safer than it looked, she said.

Ingakslugwat Hills is an area of inactive volcanos that could become active at any time and is home to the largest population of gyrfalcons in Alaska. Booms is studying the habits of young gyrfalcons.

The students went to 12 nesting sites to band and obtain blood samples from young chicks in nests, measure their primary feathers and record other vital information, including the birds’ ages and sexes. The students also collected molted feathers found in or near the sites to obtain DNA samples.

“Sometimes we could walk to the nests and other times someone had to rappel with ropes and climbing gear to the nests and carry the chicks up in backpacks,” Reininger said. “I didn’t do that. I wasn’t experienced and didn’t want to harm the chicks.

“We had to be careful not to touch the calamus (the lower shaft of feathers) because that’s where the DNA is. The most significant feathers to collect were smaller feathers less than 13 centimeters long that were fresh.”

Reininger learned how to hold a gyrfalcon chick in her lap to make it feel secure.

“At one nest, a mother came down and swooped us. Other birds watched from above but stayed away,” Reininger said.

“They’re not used to human contact so they’re more curious than threatened.”

The students found five gyrfalcon nests with chicks and seven nests with rough-legged hawks, but they couldn’t obtain blood samples from four hawk broods because they were too young.

They also found one golden eagle nest with two birds. They drew blood from the eaglets, but could not band them without a federal permit.

“When blood samples were taken, no more than five drops of blood were needed,” Reininger said.

Two bands — a U.S. Geological Survey band on the right leg and a purple band that identified Booms’ study on the left leg — were put on the gyrfalcon and hawk chicks.

Reininger returned home on July 7, but spent the rest of the summer at the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center in Poynette. She took care of the rehabilitated wildlife used for
education programs. The animals would not survive in the wild with their injuries.

“Each animal has its own personality,” Reininger said. “You can tell when they’re going to be crabby or are in a good mood and will be playful.”

The internship was supposed to be a paid position, but due to budget cuts, she didn’t receive a salary and had to pay tuition for the credits.

She had planned to work at a wildlife center or zoo, but now may return to Alaska for graduate studies and work with Booms on his research.

“It was so inspiring to me to see how  vast and beautiful the land is in Alaska,” Reininger said. “And I only got to see a small portion of it.”

Dan: fighting poverty in New Orleans

As his June 2009 graduation from the University of Wisconsin in Madison neared, Dan Ziebell, then 21, felt something was missing.

“It was hard for me to pinpoint what I needed to do,” he said. “One day we (he and friends) were discussing politics, poverty and religion, and I thought, ‘I have all these opinions on things and what have I done to back up my opinions?’”

When a representative for AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps visited the campus, Ziebell was impressed with its mission to train young adults to provide disaster relief, help impoverished urban and rural areas and protect the environment.

He committed to the program in April 2009 to begin training in October.

“I was really excited,” Ziebell said. “It made graduation kind of different because I wasn’t worried about getting a job or what I was going to do.”

After a training session in Denver that included building trails and removing invasive species from Bluff Lake Nature Center, Ziebell was assigned to a team of 12 to 13 people ages 18 to 24.

“We were from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and all parts of the country,” he said. “You learn to appreciate the different cultures and respect others’ beliefs and opinions because we all had the same purpose.”

The team was sent to three communities — New Orleans, where they built Habitat for Humanity houses and lived in the 5th Ward; Williamsburg, Mo., to do controlled burns and remove non-native trees in a nature area threatened by development; and Houston’s 3rd Ward to work with Generation One, a Christian-based nonprofit organization, on community projects and youth tutoring programs.

Each project lasted about two months.

Lodging, transportation, clothing and meals were provided and each member received $169 every two weeks for personal expenses.

“When you don’t have to pay for food and housing, it was plenty,” Ziebell said. “I didn’t come out making any money, but I’m fine. It teaches you to live modestly, and that’s a good thing, especially now.”

On Jan. 2, Ziebell went to New Orleans, where his team built a house from the ground up and worked on other houses.

They lived in a house owned by Habitat for Humanity in the city’s fifth ward, which was destroyed five years ago when a levy broke during an onslaught from Hurricane Katrina.

“We stayed in a three-bedroom, four-room house that was really tight,” Ziebell said. “There were abandoned houses across from us. Being there two months, we got to be immersed in the
culture and meet the people who moved into the house we built. That was very rewarding.

“A lot of people who go on volunteer projects for a week or two don’t get that satisfaction.”

The team then traveled to Missouri to restore a native prairie and remove invasive plants.

“It was 100% the opposite from New Orleans. We lived in a house in the middle of a conservation area,” Ziebell said. “We burned 2,000 acres. It was so much fun. Two weeks later, it was
green and everything was sprouting up.”

Ziebell learned to wield a chainsaw safely and cut down non-native trees.

His favorite project was in Houston.

“It was the most impoverished area, with high crime rates, drugs and prostitution,” Ziebell said. “We rebuilt and painted houses, built wheelchair ramps, whatever people came to the
organization for. We were given a lot of freedom to do what needed to be done and figure out how to do it. Our Habitat training really came in handy.”

The organization also has an after-school tutoring program for children.

“A lot of the kids feel they have no chance of getting out of there,” Ziebell said. “They get caught up in drugs because their education is so poor.

“We worked with the kids every day and established such a great relationship. We would play football and take them to the movies, the beach and the circus.

“It gave us a chance to live in circumstances most of us had never experienced. It gave us a new perspective on poverty and the hardships people have. We got to know our neighbors really well. I think we had an impact on them. They certainly had an impact on me.”

Ziebell planned to be a chiropractor, but now wants to a family physician. He is also pursuing certifications as an emergency medical technician and nursing assistant to help pay for medical school.

“I’m ready now for medical school,” Ziebell said. “I’ve gained so much confidence. I’m not worried about the challenge of it anymore.”

He believes every college student should do a long-term volunteer project to experience the real world before embarking on a career.   

“It’s hard to say how it changes you,” Ziebell said. “You just realize you’re a different person for doing all of this.”

AmeriCorps offers a wide range of programs in addition to the National Civilian Community Corps. More information is on www.americorps.gov.


Amanda Reininger held a golden eagle chick in Alaska (top right photo). Dan Ziebell wore an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps T-shirt (bottom left photo). Ziebell photo by Sam Arendt

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