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Pursuing Your Passion: Starting a Career in Service

The college campus has long been a bastion for young adults looking to make an impact through service both in the local community and abroad. Many of these passion-driven individuals hope to one day turn their service into a career contributing in meaningful ways for the betterment of those they serve. 

Let’s take a look at one man’s transition from AmeriCorps to a career in public service.

Matt Lerret started his freshman year at Bridgewater State University like many of his other classmates. It was a year of discovery—exploring campus, making new friends and trying new things. By the start of his sophomore year, Lerret wanted more out of his college experience. Like other service-minded college students, Lerret looked for opportunities beyond classroom walls to use his skills to give back. He became active in the Jumpstart program from September 2013 to May 2014, where he and other students developed literacy skills among local preschool children for 8 hours each week. Participation in the Jumpstart program was simple—all students had to do was walk across campus to meet up and then carpool to the preschool a few miles from campus.

“Jumpstart was a great introduction to AmeriCorps and a phenomenal experience in college,” said Lerret. “I knew it was something I could go back to someday.”

His junior and senior year got a little hectic, so Lerret left Jumpstart to focus on coursework. Before long, graduation came and went at Bridgewater State University, leaving Lerret as a newly minted working professional. He quickly found employment as a professional mover—work that supported him financially while he continued searching for something meaningful where he could align his knowledge, skills and passion. A year passed, and he began feeling a bit anxious. Something was missing. Lerret longed for that sense of purpose—the satisfaction that comes from meaningful work where you can immerse yourself in the human impact of your service. After long months of searching, Lerret started scouring the AmeriCorps website for service opportunities.

“I wanted out of New England but needed to find something that offered help with travel,” Lerret said.

Opportunity came knocking in July 2016, when Lerret was accepted into the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) out of the Southern Region. AmeriCorps finalized travel arrangements for him to begin training in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Three and a half weeks later, Lerret and his team of 12 found themselves crossing stateliness on a 14-hour road trip to Madisonville, Kentucky where they would be completing public works projects to revitalize parks and hiking trails in the Bluegrass. That was the plan at least.

Unbeknownst to them, tragedy had befallen Louisiana families, as historic flooding devastated the Baton Rouge area. You see, the AmeriCorps NCCC program has a heightened focus on disaster response and recovery work. Two short days into their work in Kentucky, Lerret’s team received orders to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Little did Lerret know that these events had set him on a path.

The team reached Baton Rouge in August to find that the flood waters had receded. They quickly learned how to muck and gut houses—a process that involves removing water damaged drywall, insulation, and flooring to prevent mold and a host of other issues.

“You could see how high the water was,” said Lerret. “Pots and pans in the cabinets still had water in them.”

As mucking and gutting continued, the streets were soon littered with mounds of debris—a composition of damaged memories, furniture and pieces of homes that now stood empty.

“You never see that in real life,” Lerret said. “That’s when you understand the gravity of what you’re doing.”

In addition to mucking and gutting homes, Lerret and his team also worked at a distribution center, putting together supply kits and delivering them in a U-Haul to areas where the flooding caused the most damage. This was where Lerret remembers seeing the direct impact of his service.

“You’re immersed in it—committed to the community,” Lerret said.

Around Thanksgiving, Lerret and his team received new orders and began traveling to towns like Asheville, North Carolina and Jackson, Mississippi to support other AmeriCorps non-disaster projects. For the remaining 5 months of his term, Lerret found himself looking back at the work he did in Louisiana after the floods. Those final months were tough. Lerret recalled seeing other NCCC Corps members posting pictures from Baton Rouge—images that tugged at his heart. He knew that he wanted to continue serving with AmeriCorps, but this time back in Baton Rouge as a team leader.

He went straight to the website and started applying for openings—even landing an interview. For his efforts he found himself on a waitlist. Instead of giving in to circumstance, Lerret refocused his efforts on finding an opening. As his term neared its end, Lerret finally got the call he had been waiting for. SBP, a national disaster recovery nonprofit was able to place Lerret with one of their partner organizations, Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge 4 days after his first AmeriCorps term ended.

“I had a great relationship with Demetria from HR,” Lerret said. “Even though I never worked directly with SBP, I could always stop in the office and talk.”

In the coming weeks, Lerret soon learned that recovery in Baton Rouge had changed in the months since he was last there. Most of the homes had already been mucked and gutted and were now in need of repairs. Lerret, like many other AmeriCorps members didn’t know anything about rebuilding prior to accepting his position. Fortunately, nonprofits like SBP and Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge excel at providing the necessary hands-on training to AmeriCorps members, who then share that knowledge with volunteers. 

“You learn as you go. If we were doing flooring, I learned flooring,” Lerret said.

While learning the entire rebuilding process doesn’t happen overnight, eventually Lerret grew confident enough to walk into a house and know what needed to be done. It was a great feeling to spent every day working with and teaching new groups of volunteers to rebuild homes so that families could regain some semblance of normal.

Armed with a new set of skills, Lerret soon found himself nearing the end of his second term. In the back of his mind, he always knew that he wanted to work for FEMA and continue helping families after disasters. He created an account on USAJOBS and started applying for open positions. Then, he waited. Those long weeks after applying led to frustration and hopelessness. Not wanting to remain idle in his job search, Lerret found an AmeriCorps opportunity fair happening in Vicksburg, Mississippi and made plans to attend.

“I walked right up to the FEMA table and started talking to the staffers about my experience and handed them my resume,” Lerret said.

A few days later, Lerret received an email about a FEMA public assistance reservist position that had become available. He jumped at the opportunity. In this new role Lerret works in impacted communities assessing damage to infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Lerret has access to a wealth of resources for training through FEMA to enhance his current skills. Most importantly, he will continue his service.

“I believe in government," Lerret said. "I did AmeriCorps, went to public schools and now I work for FEMA.”

Lerret’s journey from AmeriCorps to a career in public service is just one example of how individuals can leverage their experience to follow their passions.

“I have to pinch myself sometimes," Lerret said. "I can’t believe how well everything work out for me.”