Saturday, January 29, 2022

Lending a Helping Hand

The AmeriCorps volunteers enjoy a break from their labors. Photo by Don Manley

The AmeriCorps volunteers enjoy a break from their labors. Photo by Don Manley

Tara O’Neill likens the recent visit by members of an AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team to her hurricane-damaged, Goodland home to a celestial encounter.

“My experience was like being visited by angels, young, strong, energetic, hardworking, angels,” she said. “I brought them donuts the first day, and lunch the second day and they acted like I was doing them the favor. They were polite and so kindly sympathetic to my losses that I got choked up several times, but in a good way.”

AmeriCorps is a nonprofit, voluntary program created during President Bill Clinton’s administration by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The act incorporates VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, the National Civilian Community Corps, and it also established AmeriCorps on the state and national levels.

AmeriCorps volunteers help gut Tara O’Neill’s cottage in Goodland, which was heavily damaged in Hurricane Irma Photo by Don Manley

AmeriCorps volunteers help gut Tara O’Neill’s cottage in Goodland, which was heavily damaged in Hurricane Irma Photo by Don Manley

Under the program, adults take part in public service work to help meet critical community needs in the areas of education, public safety, health care, environmental protection and disaster relief. Members may be provided financial compensation in the form of cost-of-living allowances, student loan deferments, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and AmeriCorps Education Awards.

AmeriCorps teams have provided support after such disasters as Hurricane Katrina, 2016’s Louisiana flooding, Hurricane Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill. Services also include community outreach, damage assessments, operations and logistics, volunteer and donation management, and disaster survivor assistance.

The program dispatched teams to Florida after Hurricane Irma ravaged the state on September 10. There have been four crews of workers in Southwest Florida recently to provide assistance, such as helping homeowners like O’Neill with such things as damage assessments, debris removal, putting tarps on roofs, gutting water-damaged interiors, and mold removal and prevention.

Chris Pruden, public information officer for AmeriCorps’s Hurricane Irma disaster response in Florida, said whether it’s here or in Texas, which was his first disaster-related assignment, the people they help are extremely grateful.

“They’re happy that we’re here, especially now that we are so far out from the hurricane,” he said. “Some people kind of feel helpless and that there’s no one really there to help them. Some people can be really frustrated, which obviously is totally valid. They’ve gone through a lot. They just feel helpless. They’re trauma survivors. We have to keep that in mind no matter how far out we are from the hurricane.”

AmeriCorps teams connect people whose homes have damaged in a disaster through the National Disaster Helpline, which can be reached by dialing 211. A caller’s pertinent information, including the nature of their problem, is then entered into a Crisis Cleanup Database and prioritized. That database can be accessed by AmeriCorps and other relief organizations.

However, should a team find a hardhit area that isn’t in the Crisis Cleanup Database, they’ll canvas door-to-door to see if people need assistance, said Pruden.

A native of Washington, the Utahbased Pruden said most AmeriCorps volunteers are 18-to-25 and hail from all across America.

He joined the organization in 2012, initially working as crew member doing trail work in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, before joining its crew leader development program and becoming part of Utah’s Conservation Corps. State conservation corps are affiliated with AmeriCorps.

Pruden said his life has been enriched by the relief work.

“It’s pretty daunting physically emotionally, but it is by far the most rewarding work I’ve done,” he added. “To come to an area where people are trauma survivors, they’ve lost everything and they’re still able smile somehow and say, ‘It’s OK, I’m alive,’ is a very humbling experience. It’s really put things in perspective for me. I couldn’t imagine not being here.”

O’Neill said she had registered with the Crisis Cleanup Database and was initially contacted by AmeriCorps about one month ago when teams were working in Immokalee.

Her cottage sustained roof damage and flooding that deposited about two feet of slimy, smelly mud in its interior as a result of Irma.

“The assessment team came out to meet me, assess what work had to be done and if any special safety requirements would be needed,” said O’Neill. “A team of about six came to my house and worked two full days, gutting everything that remained in the home; ceiling, drywall and wood panel – much of it mildewed, insulation, etc.”

President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service program, including AmeriCorps, in his fiscal 2018 budget.

O’Neill said she’s not only seen how AmeriCorps can benefit individuals and communities, but also how it has made a difference in the lives of volunteers, such as her nephew Jack O’Neill.

“Some work in schools, some on farms, some in urban areas and some, like Jack, work in our National Parks maintaining trails, repairing facilities, etc,” she said. “These folks get to give a great service before committing to college or careers. Jack put himself through college this way and now teaches at-risk kids at an academy in Maine. He is also in the National Guard. Of the five or six friends he ‘enlisted’ with, all of them went on to do amazing things. The skills, training, focus and discipline these young adults receive is priceless to their lives and to all they touch. Or so it has been my experience.”

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