AUSTIN, Texas - The Hurricane Ike recovery efforts are proving to be a training ground for a young generation of Americans interested in giving something back to their country.
Teams of AmeriCorps' National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), ages 18 to 24, began arriving in the Gulf Coast area during the first week of October, not long after the Sept. 13 presidential disaster declaration. The teams, of typically 10–12 members, arrived by van from any one of the four NCCC's regional bases, where they receive their initial training.
"I spent two days on the road in our 15-passenger van to get from Denver to Galveston," said Shara Concepcion, 20, of New York City.
Assigned to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), members were trained to assist with damage assessments, conduct housing needs' interviews, and help identify solutions for those displaced by the storm. They were assigned duties in the FEMA/State Joint Field Office in Austin, and in the disaster recovery centers located throughout the affected counties.
In all, nearly 600 AmeriCorps members have assisted FEMA and the recovery effort, arriving in two waves of 300 for a six week mission. They worked 10-hour days, six days a week in addition to their AmeriCorps' teams meetings and physical training three times a week.
AmeriCorps members must complete at least 1,700 hours of service during a 10-month program. In exchange for their service, they receive $4,725 to help pay for college or to pay for school loans.
They also received room and board, of sorts, during their work in Texas. Dozens of them, along with FEMA employees, lived in a giant tent on an old airport runway in Galveston, nicknamed "Camp Tarmac." They slept on cots only a few feet from each other.
Addie Gladding of Brandon, VT, slept in an old classroom at an abandoned school with 45 other girls.
But, said the 23-year-old, "We're gaining a valuable experience and a love for community that will stay with us a lifetime."
"It's all service all the time," said Elliott Dionisio of Aurora, Illinois. "I can say I've spent a significant part of my life giving back to America."
All AmeriCorps members toured the disaster area. "I was speechless," said 18-year-old Kristen Steiner, of Grand Rapids, MI, "I will never forget the devastation." Later assigned to the Austin Field Office, Kristen conducted telephone interviews to help those displaced by the storm to find adequate housing.
"I'm going to remember not only the devastation, but the inspirational, unwavering perseverance of the people of Bolivar," added Ms. Concepcion. "Though many had lost their homes and all of their possession, many were able to look towards the future with strength."
AmeriCorps members were a "godsend" to FEMA's Linda Garcia, who coordinates the pre-placement interview staff. In all, she's had nearly 200 team members work for her over the last two months. After seeing the devastation, they were "gung ho" to help those affected by the storm.
"They went above and beyond to complete any task given them," said Rental Resources Coordinator Donna Giffin. They were professional and dedicated, she said.
One of the AmeriCorps team members was Amanda Gillman, 19, of Farmington, MI, who is deaf and communicated using sign language through Ms. Gladding. Her responsibility was to research grants and other sources of funding for homeowners to rebuild stronger and safer against future disasters. "She'd dig deeper than anyone," said Gladding.
Many of those assisting the Hurricane Ike recovery said they planned a future in human services. Ms. Gladding is planning a career in social work, and Ms. Steiner plans to join the Peace Corps after college.
I've developed a strong spirit for community outreach," said Dionisio. "For me, helping people is the cornerstone of a fulfilling life."
AmeriCorps NCCC is part of AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs created to improve environment, enhance education, increase public safety, and assist with disaster relief and other unmet human needs.
Watch the AmeriCorps online video at www.fema.gov/media/multimedia/2008/ike/index.html