Tuesday, August 26, 2014

AmeriCorps and the American Red Cross: 20-Year Partners in Disaster Response

This post originally appeared on the Corporation for National and Community Service blog: http://bit.ly/1tFJ8wF

By Gail McGovern

AmeriCorps NCCC members answer phones at the American Red Cross headquarters in North Brunswick Township, NJ. (Corporation for National and Community Service photo)
Red Cross CEO says national service members are among the most enthusiastic and capable community responders 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fighting Fire With Fire

Today's Disaster Services post comes from Rachel in the Southwest Region. Her team is a fire management team, assisting with prescribed burns and responding to wildfires throughout their service term.

Rachel's fire management team
I had the privilege of being part of the Sun Unit fire management team, we were based out of Fort Collins, Colorado from mid March to late July.  We were working with the USDA Forest Service doing fire mitigation and suppression. My team spent our first 2 weeks in a classroom so we could get our Type II Firefighter certifications and red cards. We learned a lot, and had hands on training so we knew how to operate a fire engine and dig a fire line. We learned how to fight fire aggressively, while simultaneously keeping in mind the necessity for safety and communication out in the field. 

Rachel working a prescribed burn
Our team had been warned months before that our time with the Forest Service would be mentally and physically exhausting, and the people who told us that certainly weren't lying. Each work day brought along new challenges, but being surrounded by such a supportive team definitely helped me get through those longer days. Usually we had to hike long distances to get to our work site, which was then followed by hours of physical labor and then an equally long hike out. Every time we did this we had our fire packs on which can weigh anywhere from 30-45 pounds. They have important things like water, food, a fire shelter, and extra PPE. We also carried our tools and other supplies we might need for any given project.

The first two months we were able to go out on a lot of prescribed burns. These burn projects help get rid of trees that could make fire behavior more extreme.  The days we lit the burn piles were a lot of fun, but they were usually followed by days of "mop up." Essentially mop up required our team to go back to the burn area and check piles to make sure they were no longer hot. The first two months we were with the Forest Service we had burned and secured approximately 100 acres.
When the weather got warmer, we worked on a thinning and clearing project up in the mountains. It was an interesting role reversal, because our time was then spent creating burn piles that the firefighters will light this upcoming winter. A lot of chain sawing was done to cut down dead trees in the area, and this will provide protection to nearby homes and towns in the event that there is a fire.

One major theme throughout the entire experience was the need to be "fire ready" at all times. We were warned early on that we could be called to respond to a fire at any given moment. Every day when we went to our worksite, we always packed like we would not be back to our housing for 2 weeks. Overall though, the fire season was pretty uneventful because of all the snow and rainfall. Once we were called to an unattended campfire, and there were a couple of times we were sent out on a fire only to find out on our way there that it was a false alarm. It’s crazy how much our adrenaline would start pumping whenever we heard word that there was a smoke report or potential fire in the area.

There was only one fire in our area throughout the 4 months we
Rachel's team hiking out
to their 
work site
were near Fort Collins. It was close to 4 acres in size, and it had been caused by a lightning strike. Thanks to the help of other firefighting crews in the area it was quickly contained, and our team helped with mop up on the following days to make sure it was completely cold. It was also fairly close to a residential area, so it was really rewarding for our team to know that we played a part in protecting a community from immediate danger.  The 12-16 hour days were definitely difficult, and I can only imagine how exhausting it must be when there are larger fires that require weeks of constant work.

Overall, my time with the Forest Service was one of the most challenging and exhausting experiences I could have imagined. I had no idea that I would try out for the firefighter team when I signed up for AmeriCorps NCCC, but I’m so glad that I did. I had the chance to learn a lot, and I pushed myself physically and mentally every day. Even though we had no idea what each day would bring, we stayed positive and kept our focus on the impact we were making. My team worked hard to help protect the communities in and around the national forests. I am so proud of us for what we managed to accomplish.

Are you interested in serving on a fire management team? Want to learn more about AmeriCorps NCCC? Visit www.nationalservice.gov/nccc or email us at anccc@cns.gov!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Stories From the Field

Throughout August, AmeriCorps is reflecting on disaster service. These FEMA Corps members responded to the Arkansas tornadoes earlier this year.

Cassandra Ly

FEMA Corps member Cassandra Ly is
interviewed by a local TV station
Intimidating, rewarding, fast, and exciting. Those are the four most accurate words that can be used to describe my first round in FEMA Corps. Coming into this round I was not sure what to expect, especially after finding out that we would be working on a pilot project (Ready Steady Strong). Before we even began our project, we were already faced with how quickly things can change in FEMA Corps. Rather than heading to Oklahoma City as planned, we had last minute changes that sent us to Denton, TX instead. Although it was our first experience with being “FEMA flexible”, a mere change of location was only the beginning. It was not until our last few weeks of the round that we were truly faced with what it meant to be “FEMA flexible”.

On April 27, 2014, Arkansas was hit with a tornado that required FEMA’s assistance. On April 28, 2014 Alpine Two was requested in Little Rock, AR. Originally we thought we would be heading out the next morning, but within an hour of finding out that we were requested, word was received that plans had changed and we were expected that very night. Within the next three hours we packed up our office, closed out our work and packed up our belongings at the lodging site. It was a fast paced morning and afternoon, but we did manage to be on the road on time. Within the course of a few hours our mission project changed drastically. We would now be doing what we were trained for.

Despite our six days of Disaster Survivor Assistance training, no training could have prepared me for what being in the field was like. Our days were long and tiring, but being able to help out first hand was incredible. The survivors we worked with amazed me with their smiles, patience, resiliency and kindness despite what they had just been put through. The majority of my work consisted of registration intake, updates and inquiries, but I also did some canvassing – providing information door-to-door to disaster survivors. It was through some of FEMA and FEMA Corps’ canvassing efforts that a FEMA staff member and I were presented the opportunity to be shadowed by a local news crew. All in all this was a round to remember. We were moved to three different states, had two project missions, and got an opportunity to work in our FEMA Corps specific role. These last few months are not some that I will be forgetting anytime soon, and I look forward to the upcoming projects and opportunities that I will be presented.

Shardai Perry

FEMA Corps member Shardai Perry
Beginning our first round working from the Region 6 bungalow was quite a way to kick off the first project. Starting with the building itself that we worked from, which was submerged over several feet underground, and then being introduced to FEMA Connect, which later became Ready, Steady, Strong.

I assumed automatically being placed on a Disaster 
Survivor Assistance Team we would be in the field immediately, but DSAT work comes in all colors, shapes and sizes, one of those being disaster preparedness. That’s where Ready, Steady Strong comes in. My teammates and I, as well as our sister team Tundra 3, composed a 45 minute presentation on disaster preparedness that we would later present to the youth of Oklahoma. After much work, it became a huge success amongst FEMA officials; the staff was very pleased with our final product.

The highlight of my time spent in Texas was at the end of a 
presentation, when I and a few other presenters were given a token from Region 6 as appreciation for our dedication and commitment to Ready, Steady Strong.

Damage caused by the
2014 Arkansas tornadoes
We carried that commitment to Oklahoma where we were able to present to different forms of youth. Just weeks after being in Oklahoma, Arkansas was declared for Federal Assistance and we were on our way. Nothing could have prepared me for the things I would encounter in Arkansas - the amount of damage and devastation was unbelievable. At the same time, the spirit of the people and the town was infectious. I learned what community was working in Vilonia, Arkansas. I also saw the work we did and the impact we had. We registered over 70% of registrants, which was a first ever for DSA team. I couldn’t have been more proud of my team, or to have been a part of my team. Overall, I’d say our first spike was quite the adventure, and it only fed my desire to serve even more. I couldn't be more pumped for our second round!  

Zach Trenz

This photo was taken by our team leader Mario, in the Black Oak community in Arkansas where we were working during the tornado relief efforts.  We went out to this community twice to see the damage and register people for federal assistance.  I heard a lot of their stories, and while working in the Multi-Agency Resource Center, I got to know them even more.  Their entire community was destroyed, swept away by the tornado, and the same thing happened to them 3 years before.

Working with the families that had been affected by the disaster was very rewarding.  I felt like I was really helping them out, and they were all very grateful for the assistance we were providing.  It was amazing to see how the community came together to recover and rebuild after the tornado.  Everyone helped one another, and they were all very grateful for the assistance that we could give them through FEMA.  This experience has really changed me for the better, and has shown me how resilient people can be in the face of a disaster.

If you would like to learn more about FEMA Corps, please visit www.nationalservice.gov/femacorps, or email anccc@cns.gov

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A First Impression in Disaster

During their first round, FEMA Corps Blue 5 served on DR-4168, the Washington Flooding and Mudslides, which occurred in Oso, Washington on March 22, 2014.

Driving for two days in a 15-passenger van (aptly named Purgatory), we REALLY just wanted to get there and begin work. We also knew that a disaster had just occurred while we were in our initial training, so we hoped that we would get to be a part of the response efforts.

Debris from the landslide in Oso, WA
Nothing about our first day of work was what we had remotely thought would happen. For starters, we arrived at an underground bunker surrounded with barbed wire fences, concrete barricades, and a security checkpoint. That should have been our first clue right there that we were in for an atypical situation for a freshly-deployed FEMA Corps team. So we jumped right in and got to work…for the next 12 hours, another surprise that we weren't anticipating. The work was sporadic, but monumentally interesting and fast-paced. Since the disaster itself was just ramping up, our jobs hadn’t fully formed yet, adding to our challenge of figuring out what we were supposed to be doing. Blue 5, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

FEMA Corps Blue 5
Working 12 hours days, six days a week, commuting at least two hours a day, physical training three times a week (we didn’t realize PT is suspended if you’re working disaster hours), making food at 10:30 at night, going to sleep at 11:30 p.m., waking up at 5 a.m. the next day was extremely intense living. FEMA staff would ask us how living in the Girl Scout Camp was and our reply was always, “We’re not sure, we haven’t seen in it in daylight.” Those first two weeks were easily the most challenging part of working on an active disaster.

FEMA Corps Blue 5 members working on a project
Despite the adversity, our team remained strong. Learning quickly, we integrated ourselves completely into FEMA External Affairs for the SR530 Slide. So much so that it took everyone around us by surprise. Our efficiency, precision, products, rapid adaption, versatility, drive, and enthusiastic attitudes was far beyond even what we realized we could accomplish under those less than ideal circumstances. Overall, our team considers ourselves to be one of the luckiest.  We not only worked with great people, but we felt that we helped, saw our products within the community, and witnessed first-hand how much FEMA really helps disaster survivors, which, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about. 

If you are interested in learning more about FEMA Corps, or applying to serve, please visit www.nationalservice.gov/femacorps, or contact anccc@cns.gov with questions.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Responding to Disasters

AmeriCorps 20th Anniversary August theme is Disaster Services. During this month, AmeriCorps NCCC and FEMA Corps members are reflecting on their disaster services projects. 

An American flag flying in
Wessington Springs, SD 
My name is Kristina, and I am the proud team leader for Oak 1, a team of 10 from the North Central Region campus in Vinton, Iowa. Only a few short days before our scheduled departure for our round 3 project, we were chosen to respond to an EF2 Tornado that touched ground in the small, yet resilient town of Wessington Springs, SD. We worked alongside the Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota, an organization that not only responds to disasters, but tends to other social affairs like refugee/immigration counseling, credit/finance counseling, and adoption/foster placement.

Pulling in to Wessington Springs for the first time was like an earthly encompassment of a movie from the 1950s. Everything seemed to have its place; people waved and smiled as we drove by, yards were trimmed and utilized by little ones basking in their fresh summer freedom, and the small strip of store fronts were closed long before twilight. The clean calmness of the town wasn't what the team expected when asked to dedicate a month’s time to disaster response. From the surface, it lacked chaos, emotion, and visible destruction.

It didn't take long to figure out that the lack of the aforementioned wasn't something that was absent at all; it was only masked by the sheer emotional strength, dedication, and love that the people of Wessington Springs had in their hearts and hands.

Destruction caused by a tornado in
Wessington Springs, SD. Kristina's team
responded to the city and assisted
the residents in recovering from
 the disaster.
Although we arrived only ten short days after the tornado claimed its path through the town, thousands of volunteers from surrounding communities, including the National Guard, gifted their time and heavy machinery to conduct a timely cleanup of homes and trees that succumbed to the storm. The team realized that there was beauty behind this all; the leftover destruction wasn't what we expected because this town wasn't the norm. Although multiple homes were flattened by the tornado or condemned, the townspeople didn't focus on what they had lost. They chose to be thankful for their lives, for what possessions they had left, and began moving forward immediately.

Personally, the most challenging part of this project was not the work itself. The long hours moving heavy debris in 90 degree weather, raking for small pieces of glass, roofing, and insulation, battling ticks and chiggers while searching through tall grass for all things inorganic; these were not the challenges. The real challenge was becoming acquainted with the people whose property we worked on. Having them tell their story while picking up fragments of sheetrock that was painted in shades of pink and purple that obviously once made up the walls of their little girl’s room. Seeing how tired they were, but how much drive and hope they had to become settled again. Watching a family as they stood across the street from the excavator that was busy tearing down their damaged home, room by room.  Meeting kids that have become afraid of the siren that wailed daily to signify noon. Accepting food and kind words from people who amongst the misery and disarray of losing their home, vehicles, and everything besides their foundation, managed to find the time and energy to ensure that we were comfortable and welcomed in their town. That was the challenge. I couldn't help but wish I could spend more time there attempting to right every woe that these amazing people had faced.

This type of work can really cause one’s equilibrium to dance like an EKG reading; there were so many ups and downs. The team took time every day to collect themselves however they chose. Some cooked, while others watched movies, drew, or took a nap. Whatever outlet they opted for, we all acknowledged the importance of having that time to disconnect. Personally, I decompressed by going for evening walks or morning runs; there was something about the town at these two times that really eased my mind.

Kristina, team leader of Oak 1
from the North Central Region
I am proud to say that we left this town with more friends than we arrived with, and that our sweat, cuts, bruises, and sore muscles were the result of some of the hardest and most rewarding work that we had encountered. It is impossible to summarize my disaster project in just one simple sentence, but I can say that it has opened my eyes to the endless potential that is derived through the human desire to care, love, and serve; something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

For more information about AmeriCorps NCCC and FEMA Corps disaster services efforts, please visit www.nationalservice.gov/nccc or email anccc@cns.gov

Monday, July 28, 2014

Six Things I’ve Learned as a FEMA Corps Team Leader

Nicole served as a FEMA Corps team leader at the AmeriCorps NCCC Southern Region campus. She shares her thoughts on team leading, service, and what it means to give back in today's post.

This year I started reading Thought Catalog, and many of their articles are titled things like, “47 Things You Must Do Before You Turn 24.” Some of them are about college and jobs, while others are personal reflections on life experiences that have impacted a person for the better or worse. I started to think on my own personal reflection in the style of Thought Catalog. So here is, “Six Things I've Learned as a FEMA Corps Team Leader.”

Nicole clearing debris after a disaster
1. In the words of one of my corps members, Don’t Just Hear, Listen. My corps members told me this all the time. It became a running joke, but the more I was reminded of it, the more I was inclined to listen rather than just hear my team. I needed to learn to take in everything they said, and everything that they did while they said it. Listening implies that you have sought meaning and understanding. Hearing is when you choose to repeat something back to someone and are not truly getting any information. I choose to seek understanding.

2. Give yourself credit. Even on your toughest days, you've accomplished far more than you think. Each day as a team leader can be an uphill battle. From the moment you wake up and kick over the cup of water you left on the floor, to the time you go to bed at night and realize you submitted an important piece of paperwork and didn't actually fill out the most important part. In service, as in life, sometimes it can feel like you aren't always winning. The fact is, we can’t always win. But it’s the investment you make in the small things that makes every moment worthwhile. It’s the moment when a disaster survivor says ‘thank you for all you do. We’re glad you’re here.’ It’s when your team sees a movie and you all laugh at the same parts. It’s when you plan a surprise party, when you’re not even a little bit sneaky, and it's still a surprise. Those are the times when you win.

Ocean 6 taking a break from a weekend service project
3. Roll with it. Not everything can be covered in training. It’s funny. If it’s not funny, give it a week, if it’s still not funny, I hope you called your Unit Leader a week ago.

 4. This year will stay with you for your entire life. These memories are what you make of them. Your team will become your family, and the way that you treat them will always matter. I've told my team this more than once - everyone is important, treat them as such. All people are worth the investment.

5. Embrace the change. Reject stagnancy. We have all made positive change over the course of our service term. We all walked onto our campus as very different people. Nicole from ten months ago and the woman writing this are two very different people. I hope that a year from now I have continued this forward momentum and grown even more. I hope that each member of the corps seeks out adventures of the highest caliber. You deserve nothing less than the best.

6. Service really is what life is all about. It is the question and the answer we can all hope to give. At points throughout the year, I remembered one of the first things I heard from my Unit Leader Justin. He asked, “What is your definition of service?” I've reflected many times on this question, and I always come back to Justin's answer, “Service is when you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” 

Nicole and her team, Ocean 6 at
FEMA Corps graduation
I have found myself reflecting on this statement often throughout the year. Each day, I urge you to reflect on this. When was the last time you truly served? When was the last time you genuinely gave, be it your time, your strength, or anything else, selflessly to someone who could never repay you? On the days you cannot answer this question, I urge you even more to find a way to serve, to continue what you have started. Don’t stop trying to make this world a better place. I urge you to see the positive changes you have made in yourself, love the person you have become, recognize your successes. You are more than enough. Keep these bonds you have created. Continue to grow and move forward. 

One of my favorite poets, Andrea Gibson, writes, “Become the door that opens, that keeps the people hoping, and don’t just point the way, become the path that leads them there, because if you’re gonna change the world, you've got to start with you.”

Nicole graduated from FEMA Corps this summer and has started working at a summer camp in Holmes, New York.  After finishing up her time there, she will be heading off to Sacramento to complete a year of service as a traditional NCCC Team Leader. For more information about AmeriCorps NCCC and FEMA Corps, please visit: www.nationalservice.gov/nccc.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Dedication to Service

AmeriCorps is honoring active duty military personnel and veterans throughout July. Daniel is an AmeriCorps NCCC team leader and a veteran of the United States Navy. 

Dan while serving in the U.S. Navy
When I was 17 I decided to graduate high school early for no other reason than to get the heck out. The idea of joining the military was always on my mind, but I had trouble making the commitment. With only weeks left before graduating one year early, I joined the United States Navy. I told myself it was to gain discipline, I told myself it was to find responsibility, but the truth was that it just made sense. In October 2004, just 5 months after graduating high school I left home and began my dedication in service to others. I went on to serve in Japan on the USS Kitty Hawk CV-63, then on to Washington to finish up on-board the USS Abraham Lincoln CNV-72.

Dan and the USS Kitty Hawk CV-63
My experiences while in the Navy were unlike anything else I had ever known in my life. I met men and women who would become my family. The bond between two veterans or active duty military personnel is unlike anything that could ever be explained in words. It’s a feeling of pride and thankfulness. It’s a feeling of joy and community. It’s a feeling that someone else gets what you are going through or what you have gone through unlike any person back home. It’s a bond so immense and strong that no amount of brute force or herculean strength could tear it apart. It is a bond so emotional that without a second thought, you would throw yourself into the grips of certain death if it meant you could save your brothers and sisters from harm or worse. 

When a regular, everyday person watches a war movie and the men dying in each scene they say “Wow, what a wonderful movie. What bravery those men had.” When I watch the same movie I can feel the bullets, smell the blood, and soon I can feel the very real tears behind my eyes. Serving is not just a portion of a persons life, it very much becomes who they are. You do not choose to serve, service chooses you because it is you, and it will always be you. Once it is you, then soon it is all that ever makes you happy. I joined the US Navy because I love to serve. It is the only thing that makes sense to me or ever has made sense to me. Service makes me happy and fulfilled, joyful and vibrant.

Dan and his team member on an
environmental restoration project
It was my time in the Navy being a part of something much larger than me that led me to AmeriCorps. I separated from the Navy on October 24, 2010 and I began to work as a commercial HVAC technician. It was fun and interesting for a while, but it did not make me happy. Soon I began to explore what possibilities were open for me and I discovered college. I quit my job and my profession and went on to become a full time college student at 25 years old. I continued to search out areas in which I could continue to serve, one of those being the President of the Student Veteran Organization at University of Cincinnati-Clermont. I found anything I could do to serve and eventually even found myself knocking on doors as a campaigner in the 2012 presidential election. 

Dan and his team, Delta 7
Shortly after, by accident I discovered AmeriCorps NCCC through a friend who had served in Class 18B. He filled me in on the details and what it was, what he had done and how I could join. It didn't take much convincing; in fact it took no convincing at all. The moment I realized what it was, I had created an application online and applied to two positions. After one wait list I received a call and was soon thereafter offered a position as a team leader in Class 20 NCCC in the Southern Region. I was proud and excited. I was also pompous and thought it would be a cake walk. This couldn't be further from the truth. I quickly discovered you cannot order 18-24 year-olds like they are in the military, and you must adapt your leadership style to the people of your team. I was so used to the very direct way of speaking and way of life that I had quite a few rude awakenings as to how to become a successful leader. So I am now six months in and I am still learning, but I am so very happy with what I have done. I have made my mistakes and corrected my leadership styles. Here I sit tired as I have ever been and worked to the bone, but I am happy and I am serving. 

The military prepared me for my service to others, and AmeriCorps has prepared me in my service to myself, my community and my team. AmeriCorps has led me to make a difference in my country and the opportunity give back so much more. It has developed me exponentially both mentally and physically. This program has opened my eyes and my heart to a whole other era of service.  

For more information about AmeriCorps NCCC's support of veterans and military families, or to apply to serve with AmeriCorps NCCC or FEMA Corps, please visit www.nationalservice.gov/nccc
Brought to you by AmeriCorps NCCC, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
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