From Treetop Vistas to VISTA Volunteer

Published Originally in the winter 2009 issue of Berea College Magazine

By LeAnna Kaiser, ’12

As a child, Megan Naseman, ’07, was a voracious tree climber, searching out high branches around her house. Her passion for trees was so strong that her parents imposed a height rule. She could only climb trees that she could both get up and down. But when her mother spied Megan stacking chairs on a wagon to reach a high limb, they realized her passion to explore nature was instinctive. As an adult, Megan has focused this passion on fighting environmental injustices.

Megan recalls a spring break in Maytown (Floyd County), Kentucky. She and other Berea students helped a local woman in her effort to file a “lands unsuitable for mining” petition by searching the woods for endangered plant species. Inside a cave, she says, lay a flower with unique coloration that caught someone’s eye. There followed “a rush with someone shouting, ‘Everyone come look at this!’” says Megan. Although the plant wasn’t actually endangered, it was this “hope of the moment” that deeply affected Megan, infusing her passion for the fight against environmental injustice.

In the evenings, as they thumbed through lists of threatened and endangered native plants, trying to identify their specimens, the sense of shared community deepened. Afterward, they often played Bluegrass music for hours, bringing together two of Megan’s passions.

Today, Megan works in the CELTS (Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service) office as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker, serving on- and off-campus groups and organizations through an Energy and Empowerment grant funded by Learn and Serve America. She has helped make connections among faculty, students, and community groups that are working to help communities rally against new coal fired power plants, help low-income residents weatherize their homes and lower their energy bills, and start a community solar panel project. She also helps the CELTS office to cultivate such community-based research projects as the grant writing short term course, taught by Kate Egerton of the English Department. They worked with the community groups Sustainable Berea and Madison County Home Energy Improvement Program. Says Ashley Cochrane, CELTS associate director for service learning and student-led service programs, “There’s so much going on through the work of the students in our center. All of us help out where needed.”

Generally, VISTA volunteers focus on poverty issues; Megan’s primary focus has been on the impact of energy issues on people with a low income. Most of these families are renters, and as non-homeowners, their options are limited. Rented homes may be insufficiently insulated, causing energy bills to shoot up 300 percent. In addition, “people who have a low income are often politically disenfranchised.” She has seen new coal-fired power plants located next to low-income areas, where they may meet little resistance. “If power plants locate in poor neighborhoods, these folks have higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other health issues which affect them even more because of healthcare costs.” Strip mining has also had “a devastating impact on the economy in Appalachia,” she says. Her response to these issues has been to support local solutions by connecting groups working on similar projects.

Participating in community dialogue at many weekly meetings, Megan functions as a liaison to continue conversations about energy-efficiency issues and environmental injustice. One group she worked with coordinated a local energy expo in March with the Madison County Extension Office. Megan attends several group discussions each week and says, “At almost every meeting, I can find points of collaboration.”

While studying at Berea, Megan says she was “blown away by the depth of Appalachian culture and potential for sustainability to meet a lot of the needs in the region.” Today, that momentum continues as she brings the strands of the community together to form one growing body working toward environmental justice and sustainability. “All of us can take some steps to go from where we are to a different kind of future,” she says. While Megan admits, “Easy victories aren’t a characteristic of the environmental movement by any means,” she is willing to work hard toward that end.

Categories: News, People
Tags: AmeriCorps VISTA, CELTS, service, Students, sustainability

Berea College, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor and service. The College only admits academically promising students with limited financial resources—primarily from Kentucky and Appalachia—but welcomes students from 41 states and 76 countries. Every Berea student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which means no Berea student pays for tuition. Berea is one of nine federally recognized Work Colleges, so students work 10 hours or more weekly to earn money for books, housing and meals. The College’s motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” speaks to its inclusive Christian character.