Monday, March 26, 2012

A Way Home: Creating Pathways with Community Internships

By Darryl Birkenfeld, Director, Ogallala Commons

We are all on a journey that leads to destinations that we cannot foresee. Navigating the twists and turns of the roads that a person travels to arrive at a home requires mentoring and experience. Community Internships can be an effective tool to meet such requirements, enabling towns and neighborhoods to be proactive in connecting their assets and challenges with new generations of seekers.

In 2002, after 30 years away, I moved back to the Texas village where I grew up. While I was fulfilling my dream of living “back where I came from,” I returned to my hometown without a job in hand.

Thanks to contacts and mentors that I met in my former career, I found my way into nonprofit work, as Director of Ogallala Commons. I am amazed at how my current occupation fits my skills and passions, even though I could not see it on the horizon in earlier years.

At Ogallala Commons, our broad mission is to reinvigorate communities overlying the High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer as well as the vast Great Plains region. That work has led us to creating our Community Internship program. Our hope is that the connections the young interns create now may help them find a meaningful place in their home communities or region in the future.

The High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer reaches across parts of eight
Great Plains states and comprises the work area of Ogallala Commons.
Even the idea for our Community Internships started with the creativity and energy of a young person from our region. In 2007, a high school graduate from western Kansas community asked to do an internship with Ogallala Commons. We didn’t have an internship program at the time, but the experience of creating one opened a new door for our organization.

As we worked with those first interns, we recognized that most students seek an internship in their college years. An epiphany occurred. Instead of sending youth away to do internships, why not build a program where students and adults could intern in their hometowns or neighborhoods, applying their passion and skills to projects that could benefit communities?

As of 2012, Ogallala Commons has created more than 100 Community Internships in 38 communities and six states (Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma). We have partnered with towns, institutions, and businesses. Currently, we are working on launching 40 new Community Internships.

After six years, we can see that our internships have played a large role in helping people find pathways to their new home. Let’s refer back to the young intern from western Kansas. She went on to complete two more Community Internships, plus an internship with her Congressman during her senior year in college. In 2011, she took a job as Economic Development Director for Wichita County, Kansas. While not exactly back in her hometown, she is just two counties away, already making a huge contribution to western Kansas.

Ogallala Commons counts 13 other Community Interns who are either back in their hometowns, or a community that they choose to live in. An internship wasn’t the only reason for their choices, but it did create a vital pathway that might not have otherwise existed.

With the age and education levels of interns ranging from sophomores in high school to college and all the way to graduate students or adults looking to build skills, a flexible program is essential. Community Internships range from 200 to 240 hours, and can be structured over a period lasting four to 10 weeks. Some of our internships are also carried out over a semester, or during a six-month period.

Though all our interns follow a common structure, each internship is uniquely tailored to what the partners, interns, and their communities need. As a result, candidates with diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds have gained experiences in:
  • community development and leadership,
  • entrepreneurship,
  • historical preservation,
  • nonprofit outreach,
  • agricultural careers,
  • health care,
  • renewable energy,
  • social networking, and
  • rebuilding local food systems.

Not every Community Internship has been a success. Some falter or are not fully completed due to limitations that arise with regard to three essential components of a Community Internship: a capable supervisor, an adequate set of projects, and a qualified intern.

Ogallala Commons Community Interns at their 2011 Orientation

Ultimately, the success of our program depends on how our partners answer these questions:
  • What does my community or neighborhood need that an intern could readily address with their skills and desire to learn?
  • Would I or an organization I represent be willing to invest financially and/or provide supervision for an internship?
  • Is there a young person or adult that I can identify and that I would personally invite to consider applying for a community internship?

About the program

Visit our Community Interns page to learn more about our Community Internship Program, or to read blogs and see photos of what interns have accomplished in past years. Building such a large program takes significant financial resources. Ogallala Commons has been fortunate to receive annual funding from CHS Foundation, the major giving entity of CHS, an energy, grains and foods company with a stewardship focus of building vibrant communities. In addition to program support, CHS Foundation also provides match funding to leverage investments made by partners.

About the author

Darryl Birkenfeld completed a Ph.D. in social ethics from The Graduate Theological Union and the University of California in Berkeley. As Director of Ogallala Commons, he has worked extensively in youth engagement and entrepreneurship, rebuilding local and regional food systems, public education conferences, water education, and creating a Community Internship program. Darryl resides in Nazareth, TX, and has been married to Joann Starr since 2003. Together they built a home, Casa La Entereza, using many green construction techniques, such as solar electricity generation, energy efficient construction materials, rainwater collection, and xeric landscaping. You can contact him at:

Photos and images provided by the author.
Visit the Rural Futures Lab homepage here.


Jasmin said...

Having this kind of programs is both beneficial for the interns and for the community they are serving. Interns can developed their skill and acquire new one to help the local communities in the long run.

y2keller said...

Working with you, Darryl, and with the interns you and Ogallala Commons have found and formed has been a meaningful and growth-filled experience. As a supervisor or co-supervisor for about six of the interns, I can echo your blog's conclusion that community interns are blessings to them, the community, and to the supervisor.