Miserable Conditions & Low Pay: I Couldn't Wait to Start this Job

Sarah Huff, 2013 Corpsmember of the Year
March 19, 2013

Sarah Huff is one of The Corps Network 2013 Corpsmembers of the Year. She tells a powerful -- and humorous -- story of how a job of miserable conditions in a tough Corps job made her the strongest version of herself. This is her story in her own words, modified from the speech she gave at the 2013 Corps Network Conference.

When people asked me in high school where I saw myself in five years, I never even considered I would be working a job that required long days of physical labor, was mentally exhausting, and paid very little.

But that's what I did.

A pamphlet boasting the motto, "Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more!" caught my eye.


Two months later, I started my new job.

I went to high school in California, and graduated in 2007.  After high school I began attending Shasta College and was taking a random assortment of classes hoping to find the right career for me.  But by the time my fourth semester came around, I was more confused than ever. I had almost completed my general education requirements and was no closer to declaring a major.

It was time for a change.

A New Path

I came across the brochure for the California Conservation Corps (CCC) by chance. I was volunteering at a visitor’s info center and happened to stumble upon it. The motto written on it caught my attention:  "Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more!"

For some reason, this intrigued me, so I picked up a pamphlet. They advertised a job doing trail work and working in the outdoors. I've always enjoyed being outdoors and had recently discovered a love for backpacking. Despite the fact taht it sounded like really difficult work, it seemed that this would be a job that would pay me to do the type of things I enjoy.

Two months later I started my new job.

While in the CCC I've been a trail worker, a cook, a firefighter, a crewleader, a student and a teacher. I've done landscaping, fuel reduction, fence repair, habitat restoration and rock work. I’ve worked harder than I thought I could and been more exhausted than I thought possible. I've watched people come and go and made some great friends. 

Most importantly, I've made a difference.

The CCC allowed me to step up and become a leader.

Most of the work we do goes unnoticed. When one walks down a trail in the woods, it's not immediatly obvious that a group of people has spent days claearing logs out of the way, built water bars to prevent erosion, or rerouted the trail to minimize impact on the natural environment. But without people doing those types of things, many trails would no longer be available for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.

While fighting fires, I was able to be part of a team of firefighters from different agencies from all over the country who helped save peoples homes, livelihood and prevent the loss of lives. That was an experience I will always hold with me.

Every year, the CCC selects nine Corpsmembers to be part of an Australia exchange program and spend two months working in Australia. In 2011 I was lucky enough to be one of those nine.

We worked with the Conservation Volunteers of Australia to help repair the damage done by the terrible floods that had occurred a few months prior to our arrival.

The people we helped were so grateful, and that made it a very rewarding experience. We helped people take steps to return to the way their lives were before the floods.

Besides working on the flooded areas, I also contributed to projects to help prevent invasive species from harming the natural environment.

Getting Tough

However, not all my experiences in the Corps were so glorified, and it wasn't immediately obvious how the experiences would help me in the future.

In the CCC we frequently go on "spikes". A "spike" is a camping trip near a project site which involves us working ten hour shifts for eight days in a row. Often times we were in remote locations without modern conveniences such as running water, electricity, or cell phone reception. 

In the spring of 2011 we went on one of many spikes in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. It started out like any other spike trip. But, on our second day, it started raining -- hard. After a tough ten-hour shift, I got back into camp and discovered large puddles of water filling up my tent. Most of my clothes were wet, and my sleeping bag was damp.

And the rain didn't stop. About halfway through the spike, everyone was out of dry clothes. We would all huddle around our fire, trying to dry our clothes and boots before we spent another day in the rain.

I realized that these must be the the miserable conditions the CCC motto was talking about. And for a while I wondered why I was putting myself through that misery.

But, during this spike, I finally understood something my supervisor often told me: "Miserable is a state of mind."

After a couple days of being discouraged, we started to have fun, despite the rain. We told each other jokes while we were working, and challenged each other with riddles to keep our mind off of how cold we really were. At night we would play games around the fire. We worked together to keep each other’s morale high. And we managed to turn a miserable situation into one of the best times I've had.

Experiences like this -- and all of my jobs through the CCC -- taught me how rewarding hard work is.  The CCC allowed me to step up and become a leader. I learned to work with people from other backgrounds, with different ideas and methods of accomplishing tasks. And, I can say that I've built trails in the Trinity Alps wilderness, fought wild fires in Utah and California and was able to fulfill a dream of going to Australia.

The pay may have been low, but the experiences made it all worth it.

I left the CCC in January of this year. With the help of the Americorps and CCC  scholarship money I earned from my hard work, I am now continuing college at American River College in Sacramento. I plan to get my associates degree in Environmental Conservation and then transfer to a California State University to work on my bacheleors degree.

My time in the Corps helped me discover my passion for working outdoors and protecting the environment -- and it changed my life.

Sarah Huff is a 2013 Corps Network Corpsmember of the Year.  Read more about Sarah here.



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