Outdoorsman Finds His Calling Serving At-Risk Children

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Each year, young Americans from across the country leave behind everything to dedicate a year to community service. Some, like Mike Machella, find themselves serving in a spot they just can’t leave.

Six years ago, the Atlanta native was working with children in an after school program setting, and beginning to feel restless in his position. He decided it was time for an adventure, so he took the leap to join AmeriCorps. He looked for an opportunity where he could take his talent for guiding young people and marry it with his love of the outdoors. Mike found the perfect match in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Pfeifer Kiwanis Camp sits on 88 acres along the Little Maumelle River, and brings in at-risk children for a month-long alternative classroom experience.

Mike was shocked when he drove up. Pfeifer Camp was much more primitive than he expected, but he quickly grew to love Pfeifer Camp and to love the difference that he was making in the lives of third, fourth, and fifth graders.

“It was essentially like a dream living here and working here and serving as an AmeriCorps member in one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to,” he said.

The AmeriCorps team works as counselors at the camp, living with the students in their cabins, mentoring them, helping with school work, and taking them on weekly camp outs.

For many of the children who have never experienced the outdoors, the primitive setting helps them learn to be more self sufficient.

“We’re able to use the natural setting of camp to help push those kids over that next obstacle,” Mike said. “They build their own shelter, they’re putting their own tents up, and they’re taking responsibility for their year, for their camp out, and for their learning.”

After his year was up, Mike decided to stay on, and spent a second year at Pfiefer Camp as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Eventually he decided to make it his permanent career and residence. Mike now works as Program Director at the camp.

“Service sounds great on paper; working with at-risk youth sounds great on paper, but it’s a challenge,” he said.

Mike takes on those challenges with an innate sense of calm and a level of creativity that impresses the camp’s assistant director, Binky Martin-Tollette.  

“Whenever you can get a kid turned on to something new then you’ve got them in the palm of your hand,” she said.”Mike was able to do that many times over with the campers that he worked with (as an AmeriCorps volunteer) and still continues to do that.”

Martin-Tollette nominated Mike for an Arkansas Community Service Award, and he was selected as the 2016 honoree in the National Service category.

Many of the children need a father figure, and Mike has stepped in and filled that bill for them. He has also been effective in helping them to see the bigger picture and shown them what commitment means by staying committed to them himself, Martin-Tollette said.

Mike Machella will receive his Community Service Award on June 10.

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