Only in AmeriCorps

Working in close quarters for long periods of time can lead to exasperation, frustration, or in some cases, love. Six Mt. Lebanon residents ended up as three couples while working with AmeriCorps. Annie Skiba and Dan Thomas; Kim and Dan Miller. Back, Clayton Murral and Mary Ullman.

Six Mt. Lebanon residents could have guessed that spending 10 months volunteering in the poorest nooks of America—hacking away at invasive plants in Alaska’s national parks while steering clear of bears, building homes in inner-city Washington D.C. or schlepping across the country in a van for weeks with dozens of people they’d never met—would lead to lifetime memories. But what they didn’t count on was finding a life partner.

“I knew he was in love,” Mary Ullman of Parker Drive said of her husband Clayton Murral. “If you can fall in love with a person when you don’t shower for weeks at a time…”

The now married couples all volunteered with AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs that bills itself as a domestic Peace Corps. Through the stress, lean budgets and physically and mentally taxing labor, each person met his or her soulmate and later moved to Mt. Lebanon to raise their families.

Kim and Dan Miller and their son live on Longridge Drive. They were based in Washington, D.C., when they served in the Corps in 1997-98, and married in 2001. Annie Skiba and Dan Thomas of Tampa Avenue also served in 1997 but were in a different program that began in Colorado and took them to 17 different states. They also married in 2001 and have three children. Mary Ullman and Clayton Murral of Parker Drive were the most far-flung of the group, serving in Juneau, Alaska, in 2007 (Clay first served in 2006 and returned to be a team leader). They have three children and married most recently of the group, in 2010.

The three couples recently joined mtl at Uptown Coffee. Several had met casually before, but this was the first time they gathered to talk AmeriCorps.


Clayton Murral and Mary Ullman

Get. Things. Done. That’s the slogan of AmeriCorps, with roots that date back to service groups in California in 1965. President Bill Clinton established it as a federally run program in 1993. To volunteer, 80,000 young adults each year become “members” of the bipartisan, apolitical organization, leave home and travel the United States, helping to improve four areas of life: environment, education, public safety and unmet human needs. Recent job duties for members have included helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Florence, removing trash from ponds to promote sustainability and helping military families apply for benefits.

Members’ room and board, such as it is, is paid for. They can defer college loans, and they get small stipends to put toward education costs or cover expenses. But that’s not why anyone does it, the participants say. “I’ve never met anyone who said ‘Thank God for the [student loan] deferment,” Thomas said. They do it to serve. In the process, they become frugal, agile and efficient.

“We’ve been doing so much with so little for so long that we can do anything at all with nothing in no time flat,” Ullman said was her team’s slogan. The others nodded in agreement.

For example, participants had low per diems for food, and learned quickly to be thrifty. Five dollars a day per person often meant a diet of beans and rice. An organic salad became an unaffordable delicacy, Ullman says.

The programs were one big team-building exercise. The groups woke up together. Ate together. Traveled together. Were covered in DEET mosquito repellent together. All. The. Time. For people who have conflicts with just one college roommate in a relatively clean and dry dorm, that sounds untenable.

“There is no personal space,” Kim Miller said. “And you’re dealing with people who are different from you.” The challenge is to learn to come together. “There are no political discussions,” Thomas added. “You cannot go down that path.” But the skill of getting along in diverse groups has served them all well at work and in life, they agreed.

“A lot of those people are some of the best friends I’ve had,” Ullman said.

The three couples had different social dynamics in their groups. The Alaska program had eight to 10 people, while the Denver program started with 300 participants. They described leaving for an assignment as being out on a “spike,” with many spikes over the program duration.

The volunteers had a few weeks of intense training, including military-style physical workouts, fire safety, disaster relief and first aid, but nothing really prepared them for the work they did. Ullman and Murral’s training in Alaska included bear safety. The projects were things most young adults probably don’t know how to do, including building houses from the ground up. “You just learn.” Skiba said. Many learn by just jumping in and doing. “You can help in any type of job,” Dan Miller said. “Nobody said ‘I’m going to sit this out because I don’t know what I’m doing.’”

“There were a lot of points when I thought ‘I can’t believe they’re letting us do this,’” Skiba said as several nodded and exclaimed simultaneously: “Chainsaws!”

Kim Miller said one of her group’s tasks was to work as tutors in an after-school center, where the first job of the day was to sweep out all the heroin needles. She said the experience forced her to examine life. When looking at communities where people have nothing, “It forced me to ask the question ‘Why? What happened to cause this poverty?’”

Watching Kim Miller work is what attracted Dan to her. “You really do get to see the person give of themselves during the project,” he said, noting he admired Kim’s focus. “We would not have met but for the program.” (Dan grew up in Connecticut and Kim is from Ohio.)

“You get to know people very quickly,” Kim Miller said. “There’s no time for chit chat. You bare your soul.”

Ullman, originally from Montana, and Murral, from Greene County, Pennsylvania, were co-leaders in Alaska when they noticed each other first amid the wild spaces of public lands. “It was so stressful in the middle of nowhere. … We were such good partners,” Ullman said. “It just grew from there.” They named their oldest son, Paxson, for the tiny town in Alaska where they completed their first project.

Everyone in the group had different reasons for joining. Dan Miller, who earned bachelor’s degrees in history and secondary education from Western Connecticut before joining, was attracted to the pure service aspect of it, as was Kim Miller, who had a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University. After service, both went on to get graduate degrees.

Dan Thomas grew up here and graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1997. “All my friends were college bound. I wanted to be productive,” he said, noting he wasn’t ready for college. He wished his guidance counselor had suggested AmeriCorps to him; he learned of it by accident when online, researching places to serve. He was immediately attracted to the outdoor focus of the program. Skiba, from Wisconsin, did learn about AmeriCorps from a guidance counselor. She applied but didn’t get in at first. Yet a few months later, she got a call that said “If you can be on a plane in 24 hours, we’ll hold your spot.” She jumped at it.

Thomas eventually attended Colorado Mountain College and Skiba went to Point Park.

Ullman agreed on the program’s usefulness, noting the number of opportunities for varied tasks. Murral agreed, noting there was no typical type of volunteer. “There were people there I never would have guessed would be part of a service organization,” he said. One man on Skiba’s and Thomas’ team was homeless.

“If you are not sure what you want to do … instead of spending 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars a year, go find it before you go to school,” Dan Miller said. “Everyone here is so college-centered,” Skiba said. “Sometimes it’s not right for everybody.”

“If a parent’s reading this, it’s OK if your kid takes a year off,” Thomas said. Dan Miller was quick to joke: “Although AmeriCorps would say ‘Take a year on.’”

All six participants said their service turned them into lifelong volunteers. “I assure you, there’s a very small percentage of AmeriCorps volunteers who say (slaps hands together) ‘That’s it,’” Dan Miller said.

Skiba said the intense service changed her way of thinking about volunteering every day: “When you see a need, you want to fill it.”

Mary Ullman and Annie Skiba both call themselves “stay-at-home moms,” but both volunteer in the community. Ullman volunteers with a group of second graders doing outdoor education activities, and is starting her own business: “Moms Gone Wild,” a family outdoor gear rental company. Skiba is active on the board of the Mt. Lebanon Partnership, which administers the town’s Main Street program and plans community events such as First Friday and ULTRAparty. She also helps run several social media groups, where Mt. Lebanon residents can exchange ideas and get recommendations for products and services.


Dan Thomas and Annie Skiba

Murral, who has a degree in environmental science, works in environmental regulatory compliance, specifically in the air quality field, for Southwest Energy. He and Ullman, who has a degree in anthropology, moved to Mt. Lebanon in 2013 after feeling the community’s welcoming nature while visiting Beverly Road. Dan Thomas owns Solid Painters, which does commercial and residential work. Thomas’ brother, Ben, who graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1999, volunteered with AmeriCorps and now runs the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Taos, New Mexico. Thomas and Skiba moved to Sunset Hills in 2003.

Kim Miller works for the United Steelworkers, doing legislative work for the union. Dan Miller is Mt. Lebanon’s elected state representative and is a 13-year veteran of the Mt. Lebanon Volunteer Fire Department. The Millers selected Mt. Lebanon in 2002 because of its small-town feel and public transportation.

Several of the group have gone on to do recruiting for AmeriCorps. But they’re honest about the challenges. The most stressful part of the job was the emotions it brought on, especially working in the realm of “unmet human needs,” the group said. But they say it is one of the most worthwhile things they have ever done.

“There is no experience like it, in my opinion, for an 18- to 24-year-old,” Dan Miller said. “The opportunity won’t come up again.”

Ullman agreed. “I wish everyone would do a term of service like this.”

Matching honeymoon luggage, optional.

Photography: George Mendel