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Staples Grads Serve America, Find Themselves

Nellie Stagg has led teams that created trails in the Rocky Mountains, surveyed endangered cacti in the Sonoran desert, transformed a burning landfill into a nature preserve in Texas, tutored struggling 6th graders in Denver, and built homes for low-income families in Oklahoma.

And those are just the highlights of 2 years of service.

“I gained a lifetime’s worth of interesting stories, and more leadership experience than some managers earn in their careers,” Nellie — a 2009 Staples High School graduate — says.

More important, though, she “learned I had the power to get things done. My team and I worked every day towards the world we want to live in.”

Nellie Stagg (center, in green) with her team. They built Habitat For Humanity homes in Oklahoma City.

Nellie was a team leader for Americorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), a program called “the domestic Peace Corps.” Teams of 10 volunteers — between 18 and 24 years old — travel around a region in a van for 10 months. They work on diverse projects for 6-13 weeks at a time.

Every NCCC experience is different. “The mystery is part of the fun,” Nellie says. “You learn to adapt quickly to constant change.”

Both Nellie and classmate Andy Friedland served as team leaders. Both, she says, “had the transformative experience of being trusted to lead teams in the field, empowering our members to grow in sometimes unexpected and beautiful ways.”

Andy worked with HERO and Habitat for Humanity in Alabama and Florida, assembled and distributed care packages to victims of flooding after Hurricane Joaquin in South Carolina, and fixed trails at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield in Georgia.

Andy Friedland, hard at work for AmeriCorps NCCC.

Thrown together with a diverse group, Nellie says the “immersion experience of living and working with communities in need taught me more about poverty in America than I ever learned in a sociology textbook or documentary.”

She learned hard skills too. “If you need a trail built, a long division lesson taught, a huge hole dug, a wall built or demolished, a house weatherized, or some 2x4s cut at 45 degrees, I’m your gal.” She learned not only how to use and love power tools and pickaxes, but how to harness her strength and skills in physical labor.

NCCC covers travel costs, housing and food. They even pay a living stipend.

While serving with AmeriCorps, federal student loans go into forbearance — and the government pays the interest that accrues. Graduates of the program get an award of $6,000 to pay back student loans or put toward future schooling.

Nellie calls it “a community service road trip bonanza — hands-down the best thing I’ve ever done.” The experience catapulted her into a job managing AmeriCorps programs for the governor of Colorado. Andy works as an assistant regional director at the Connecticut office of the Anti-Defamation League.

AmeriCorps NCCC is not all about backbreaking work. Nellie got eaten by this hippo while helping renovate a Head Start playground in Idabel, Oklahoma.

As Nellie watches her younger brother, JimmyRay, navigate the college process at Staples, she reflects on the expectation in Westport that everyone go immediately to a 4-year university. She wants Staples students to know that there are other options — and AmeriCorps NCCC is one of them.

She joined NCCC after graduating from the University of Connecticut. She did not know what she wanted to do next (other than not live in her parents’ basement). A former boss at the Longshore pool had joined NCCC.

Regardless of why people start, she says, everyone leaves the NCCC journey with “new friends, countless stories, a new perspective on the US, and a service ethic that stays with you.”

Nellie asked “06880” to spread the word about her life-changing experience. And, she adds, “if the whole living in a tent/church basement/empty office building with 10 other people isn’t your style, there are thousands of different AmeriCorps positions across the country to choose from.” For more information, click on

Nellie Stagg’s team builds a trail in Ridgway, Colorado.


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