Sara couldn’t believe it when she got the email. Along with several ESLT staff members, Board members, and supporters, she was in Sacramento earlier this month attending the national Land Trust Alliance’s Rally 2015. In her inbox appeared a message notifying her that she would need to plan a return trip to Sacramento – in just one week. And for a very good reason: she would be receiving an award. “I had no idea that Kay had even nominated me for anything,” Sara recalled. “What a surprise!”
Not just any award, too. Out of more than 4,000 individuals serving non-profits, schools, public agencies, and communities across California, our very own Sara Kokkelenberg has been singled out as the state’s AmeriCorps Member of the Year for her service with ESLT!
Sara was presented with the Catherine Milton California AmeriCorps Member of the Year award at a special ceremony held on the Capitol steps on October 15. This annual award is given by CaliforniaVolunteers, the state office that manages the California AmeriCorps program and other initiatives aimed at engaging Californians in service and volunteering. It is one of the highest honors in community service throughout the county.
This extraordinary news came to Sara shortly after a different – though equally fantastic – turn of events, one that also resulted from her excellent work serving the Eastern Sierra community since 2013 as ESLT’s Education Coordinator & AmeriCorps Member.
We are thrilled to announce that Sara will be joining ESLT full-time as our new Stewardship Coordinator – a position made possible through generous funding provided by long-time ESLT members Sharon and Malcolm Clark!
Long before Sara was nominated for the Catherine Milton award, Mammoth Lakes residents Sharon and Malcolm approached Kay to ask what they could do to help ESLT continue to achieve its goals long into the future. And for Kay, the answer was simple.
“I knew that ESLT needed someone on the ground, dedicated to habitat restoration and the ongoing stewardship of our protected lands,” she remembers. “And I wanted that person to be Sara. Like most nonprofits, we run on a tight budget, and finding additional funding for this new full-time staff position was daunting. So Sharon and Malcolm’s proposal arrived at just the right moment.”
For the Clarks, this new position was an opportunity in which they were delighted to invest. “We support the Land Trust ethos of working with willing landowners to achieve a win-win situation that helps them and helps the environment at the same time,” commented Sharon. “Protecting our wild lands and wild critters for our grandchildren’s benefit is what we’re all about.” They envision the Stewardship Coordinator position fulfilling a much-needed role to help make this objective a reality.
Predictably, Sara is a little overwhelmed by all the excitement surrounding her work with ESLT – and she knows she didn’t do it alone. “[ESLT Volunteer] Wally Woolfenden once told me that, ‘we are a family,’ meaning all the ESLT staff, supporters, and volunteers, and that rings true to me. I have my whole ESLT family to thank for training, encouraging, and supporting me through my AmeriCorps service. There’s no way I could have accomplished any of our recent successes without their leadership.”
Sara helped develop and implement our Eastside Pollinator Garden Project, which has to-date certified more than 50 gardens and community spaces in Inyo and Mono Counties as pollinator habitat. Sara also brought renewed vigor to ESLT’s education programs with area elementary school students – such as our Sunflower Garden Project, which teaches local third-graders about plants, pollinators, and the magic of the natural world.
From among a highly-accomplished pool of nominated candidates, Catherine Milton selected Sara as the recipient of the award named in her honor because of the substantial impact Sara has had on our community.
“Sara represents the very best of AmeriCorps,” Catherine told us. “She has focused on real, important problems facing our nation and has learned specific skills to make a difference. And even better, she has shown that she is a true leader who has been able to encourage others to help. Sara is a star. I am so proud to have her name and mine be connected.”
Catherine Milton is known across the country as a preeminent leader in community service for her many years of work promoting volunteerism. She served as Senior Vice President of the Corporation of National Service during the Clinton presidency, and oversaw the development, implementation, and funding of AmeriCorps and other national service programs. She also designed and directed the first national service leadership center, the Presidio Leadership Center, and was the founding director for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.
Often referred to as the “domestic Peace Corps,” the AmeriCorps program engages participants across the country in service that benefits the specific needs of local communities. Over 4,000 members in California alone go to work each year to assist programs that address critical community needs in education, veteran services, health, and the environment. Since 2007, ESLT has hosted talented AmeriCorps members to help inform and inspire the Eastern Sierra community about land preservation and habitat restoration.
“Sara’s work with Eastern Sierra Land Trust has made a huge impact on the future of our region,” commented Kay. “This award is a reflection of the wonderful work Sara has contributed, and I can’t imagine anyone more deserving of this great honor.
“She’s educating our community about the important role pollinators play in sustaining both our beautiful native flora as well as our agricultural legacy. And she’s inspiring people of all ages to get out there and go to work to protect this land we treasure.”
Sara’s AmeriCorps term with ESLT ended in September, and she now plans to take a few months off to travel – but she won’t be gone for long. She is delighted to return to Bishop this spring and continue her work with ESLT as our Stewardship Coordinator. She looks forward to advancing several projects that she participated in during her AmeriCorps service, including an ambitious plan to build habitat for the native Owens Speckled Dace at ESLT’s Benton Hot Springs Ranch Conservation Easement, as well as ongoing restoration work in the Round Fire burn area.
“It’s easy for me to see what a positive impact ESLT has on our Eastern Sierra landscapes, and it’s so rewarding to have a hand in that success. I’m excited to continue building relationships, restoring habitat, and ultimately finding new ways to connect the community to this big, beautiful backyard we all share.”