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Goats in Great Neck: Ackerman Brings in AmericCorps

Got a Lot of Munchin’ to Do…

What could possibly have brought a busy congressman to rendezvous with a herd of goats in, of all places, Great Neck?

Commissioners from the Great Neck Park District, who lease Kings Point Park from the Village of Kings Point and maintain its natural assets, learned from resident Elizabeth Allen that an invasive thorny vine, cat briar, which spreads through underground tubers, was inexorably marching through the park. It is a formidable vine that grows straight up, tangles around saplings, bushes and trees and eventually makes for an impassable thicket of thorns.

Difficulty in eradicating cat briar is made harder because its buddy, poison ivy, grows all around. Much of Kings Point Park is a protected wetlands area, therefore, chemical weed killers are not allowed. The people power to hack into the vines and manually dig out the tubers would be a staggering number, estimated at $100,000.

What to do?

The commissioners learned that AmeriCorps, an organization sponsored and funded by the federal government, an outgrowth of the CCC from Franklin Roosevelt days, just might be able to provide the people needed to watch over a ravenous herd of goats and dig up the tubers once an area is cleared by the goats.

They reached out to Congressman Gary Ackerman to help them make their case for assistance from AmericCorps volunteers, who are much in demand across the country. Needless to say, the congressman came through for them and the park district scrambled to provide housing for the volunteers at the house they own at Steppingstone Park.

And so it was that last Monday, Congressman Ackerman and assorted news media braved muddy, chilly conditions in the park to come for a visit with the volunteers, the park commissioners and the stars of the show, the goats. Although puns abounded and one occasionally heard the humming of strains from The Lonely Goatherd song from The Sound of Music, Congressman Ackerman was not “kiddin’” around when he thanked the volunteers for their dedication and hard work. He was especially impressed, after chatting with the 11 young adults, that even on their time off from working at the park, they find a soup kitchen or another worthy project that needs helping hands.

The volunteers, who range from 17 to 24 years old, sign up and pledge to work for 10 months at a time. For some, volunteering runs in the family. More than one young person told the Record that a sibling had previously volunteered with AmeriCorps and had had such positive experiences, that joining up seemed an unqualified good idea. Some saw the program as an alternative and perhaps trial run for a Peace Corps gig, which requires a 2-year commitment. One young woman from Mississippi told us that as a resident of a Gulf state “whose world was turned upside down” by Hurricane Katrina, she felt compelled to “give back.” Some are straight out of high school and want some experiences before deciding about future careers; others are taking a break after sophomore year in college to also gain perspective about career paths. One, from Oregon, was inspired after hearing President Obama speak at her campus. Another told us that she wanted to be “a small part of a bigger movement.” One could sense their team spirit and the camaraderie that develops over time and through shared experiences.

There are benefits from volunteering, aside from the personal networking, in the three various AmeriCorps programs as they may help with college costs and student loans. (For more information about AmeriCorps, visit their website at www.americorps.gov)

This particular team is reaching the end of their commitment and will be returning home to be with their families in time for Thanksgiving. During their time volunteering in America, they have worked on a community garden in New Jersey and at two Habitat for Humanity and Fuller Center for Housing projects in the Gulf region.

They seem to have enjoyed this, their last project. Their digs at Steppingstone provide magnificent views of Long Island Sound and Great Neck residents in-the-know about their presence, have brought them homemade goodies to sweeten their time here.

The volunteers erected low-voltage fenced enclosures to keep the goats from roaming far and wide and the goats were not delivered from their farm in North Carolina until the fencing was completed. Although the AmeriCorps program had no price tag, the park district did pay $2,400 to rent the 24 goats for several weeks.

Goats will eat just about anything. Said one AmeriCorps volunteer, “If they’re not sleeping, they’re eating…even at night.” The goats do have their preferences however. For photo ops, volunteers would rattle the container holding food pellets and the goats would obligingly troop over to pose for the treats.

But then, all the visitors left and they were back to eating those prickly cat briars. Munch, munch.

(Full Disclosure: This reporter can personally vouch for goats and their ability to eat plants with thorns. My father bought me a three-legged goat at the bargain price of 50 cents at the weekly cattle barn auction. The cute kid was delivered as a surprise squirming in a burlap bag. Smokey was a great pet, whose missing leg did not slow him down in daintily running and keeping up with the dogs. He would show his affection by rubbing his knotty head against my leg. Unfortunately, he developed an irresistible fondness for my mother’s rose bushes, which abruptly ended his status as a pet. Smokey was given to a nearby farmer and I never pestered my father too much about his ultimate fate. As a farm child, one learns early that some questions are better left unasked. I would like to think that he ended his days quietly munching on unwanted weeds.)