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The Year of Change and Discovery: Connecting to my Purpose and Healing

November 10, 2020 12:00 AM
By: Mel Oliver, Crew Member, Philadelphia 10-Month Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps Crew (Pictured below)

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Finding the Crew

In the midst of a food service job during the pandemic, I spent my free time volunteering at the multiple encampments around Philadelphia and lending all the support I could. I became intimately involved with the Philadelphia community so consistently I met many helpful and genuine people, one of them being Matthew MacDermat, or Matteo.

Matteo talked and I about his ambitions to move out west and our shared aspirations for independent media. After running into each other at the encampments multiple times he told me about the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps and the Philadelphia crew he held the leader position for until his big move.

Wanting to leave my previous job in the food industry and feeling boosted from working so closely with my community, a position to nourish the earth, myself, and the surrounding community with conservation work ticked all the boxes for me to try my skills out somewhere new.

First Day


On August 17th, I started with the Philadelphia crew midway through the season. A season which started amidst many challenges; a global pandemic, subsequent quarantine and then the continued work to upkeep the beauty of Pennsylvania's commonwealth.

I joined the Philadelphia crew out at Tyler State Park, where we continued building stairs up a trail. As a first project I couldn't have asked for anything more stimulating for the need for a challenge and abundance of energy.

I remember thinking, on the drive to the park, I would be seeing a lot of Philadelphia I had never thought to explore. In July, I just moved out to Germantown from South Jersey and the parks in Jersey are mainly bogs and marsh land!

I also began to understand the planning and communication that goes into each project. The stairs took us the rest of the week to build up a hilly trail, which we dug and excavated ourselves.

It was hard work and sometimes frustrating lining up the wood planks for the stairs as the incline became steeper. But Cass, a crew member, was very diligent about teaching me the tool names, how to handle them, and store them safely!

I took pride every day knowing I worked with a team so encouraging of each other's strengths as well as putting my passive knowledge from my parents, who are both engineers, into practice.

Constructing a stable, safe, and beautiful set of stairs on a slope was hard work but I knew together we had all the grit in the world to get it done.

The Power of Conservation Work


Many of the parks I've been to since joining the crew involved invasive species removal, planting trees, and conservation of native plants.

I immediately felt and saw how important the environment around me was as well as wanting to care for it from fellow crew mates, like Lanette, with her extensive plant identification knowledge.

Many of the crew's conversations centered around plants, especially natives, and quizzing one another on identification. I remember thinking this is the mentorship and stewardship I have been waiting to experience.

I come from a family that is very into homeopathy and organic/ holistic ways of treating one's body and I personally have such a connection with the land. I all the more cherished being out amongst plants and people who saw that and gathered for that shared purpose.

Often the work in the parks felt spiritual or simply just healing to the loss of focus and support I experienced after leaving my previous teaching job because of the pandemic. I came into this crew ready to explore and learn about myself and be put in the never-ending students seat to meld and skill share.

It became the most rewarding to come to the end of a week at a park and admire all the trees we planted, trails we cleared and looped anew. And to receive live feedback from the public was just the direct action feeling I got from my volunteer work with the encampments -- a full circle!

Community Gardens


Having the chance to spend time at places such as The Schuylkill Environmental Center, Awbury Arboretum, and Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center solidified my meandering passions about magazine journalism and multimedia storytelling.

Once I figured out the invasive plants species we were removing could be used for papermaking my sustainable-zine-press visions started to take form! As well as the familial closeness that came back as I got better with my native medicinal plant identification.

At the environmental centers, such as Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, I learned how to cultivate seeds from plants so I could seed and grow my own! The crew and I also recently went rock climbing at the Delaware Canal for the first time.

I have gratitude toward the wide range of experiences the rangers, park managers and trail leaders were able to provide during my time on the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps Philadelphia crew.

The program allowed for me to reconnect with my growing process to be more aware and realistic on how to lead and act sustainably. I value the time and friendships I've made and look forward to doing it again!

A dynamic education and traveling experience with the ecological environment continue to pervade my life, and this program has inspired me to find ways to bring that feeling to more communities for years to come!

About Mel and the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps


Mel is a member of the 2020 10-month adult crew in Philadelphia. DCNR had nine crews for young adults ages 18-25 working on public lands and conservation projects across the state in 2020.

The youth employment and enrichment program is managed by the DCNR in cooperation with the Student Conservation Association, a national conservation jobs organization.

The 2020 Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps is financially supported by DCNR and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry's Reemployment Program, along with private contributions made through the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation.

DCNR and the Student Conservation Association will be offering 2021 Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps opportunities. For more information, visit the DCNR website.

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