Sunday, March 3, 2013

Getting things done for Mississippi

FEMA Corps getting briefed by
Red Cross in Petal, MS. Photo by 
Marilee Caliendo
Occasionally I drop off the blogsphere for a few weeks. That's because I've been deployed to a disaster. Below is something I wrote recently about FEMA Corps, a great group of young adults helping America.

By Jane Feehan

PURVIS, Miss. – A tight-knit group of nine drove from a disaster assignment in New York to report

to another, hundreds of miles away in Mississippi, upholding their pledge to “get things done” for America.

“After working together for six months, we’re a good team,” said Katelyn Eilbeck, 22, of Ohio about their disaster work.

The team is part of FEMA Corps, a new unit of AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps whose members will be devoted solely to FEMA disaster response and recovery efforts. The partnership between FEMA and NCCC was formed in 2012 with the intent of helping the agency respond to disasters while promoting an ethic of national service and civic engagement among corps members.

The team, just arrived from New York, began its FEMA odyssey in this state with training at the Vicksburg Southern Region Campus of the FEMA Corps and National Civilian Community Corps programs; Vicksburg is also their base. Now they are helping Mississippians recover from recent tornadoes, storms, and flooding. A day after they arrived in Hattiesburg, the nine embraced their tasks, working in the heavily-damaged communities in and around Hattiesburg.

Some were embedded with FEMA Community Relations teams, knocking on doors passing out information; others worked at Disaster Recovery Centers meeting survivors face-to-face, providing a sympathetic ear and directing them to the right federal and state staffers for assistance. One corps member helped out at the Disaster Information Station at the University of Southern Mississippi providing information to students and faculty affected by the disaster; others worked at the
MEMA-FEMA Joint Field Office to help the voluntary agencies contact applicants, and to assist external affairs in their daily tasks reaching out to the community and government leaders. 
FEMA Corps continues to roll up their sleeves and pitch in wherever needed.

This is all part of the FEMA Corps initiative to engage young adults ages 18 to 24 to provide ten months of full-time service on disaster response and recovery projects.  Members are deployed to assignments ranging from working directly with disaster survivors to supporting disaster recovery centers to sharing disaster response and rebuilding information with the public.

After completing 1,700 hours of service, FEMA Corps members will receive a $5,550 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to pay for tuition or pay student loans.  It’s a win-win for the agency and for the young adults.

Some FEMA Corps teams, including the one sent to Mississippi, may team up with voluntary agencies one day a week to work on community service projects – providing there is time and opportunity.

“We’ve gone to survivors’ homes to help take out debris, including insulation and drywall and we scrubbed and sprayed for mold,” said Eilbeck about community service. They expect to do the same in Mississippi.

Life can be spartan on the FEMA Corps trail. Teams share tight lodging – sometimes seven women to a room with one bathroom. For several months, a decommissioned military ship activated by the federal government served as temporary home.  They pool meager funds to prepare communal meals.

“It can be somewhat stressful,” said team member Jack Brinck, 22, of Texas. “We’re pulled out of our comfort zones – for some it’s the first time away from home - but it’s a learning experience and quite rewarding.”

Eilbeck says they support each other, working through the challenges. They use what they learn about their own team’s dynamics and carry it to their assignments involving FEMA’s stakeholders – and to their encounters with disaster survivors.

In Mississippi just a few days, the team identifies strongly with the state’s recovery mission; they feel connected to those whose lives have been turned upside down in the Pine Belt. FEMA Corps is serving as a key part of FEMA’s disaster recovery mission. They’re getting things done for Mississippi.

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