NCCC Alum Remembers How AmeriCorps Works in Joplin
Today’s guest post comes from Patrick Quigley, NCCC Team Member 2010 – 2011 at the Southwest Campus in Denver, Colorado.
It seems to be the norm lately that when the time comes for Congress to decide what to spend money on and what to cut, AmeriCorps and National Service programs are often on the chopping block. Some officials have even gone as far as saying that as “paid volunteers”, AmeriCorps members are not really focused on giving back to their community, but that it’s more out of interest to their bottom line.
Now, maybe my experience in NCCC doesn’t account for everyone, but when I hear something like that, I can only conclude that these officials haven’t spent much time with AmeriCorps members. Considering the lifestyles we live while in AmeriCorps, it’d really be hard to make the case that we do it primarily for financial reasons.
Sure, I can see how eating on $4.50 a day and sleeping on church floors may appear glamorous, but trust me, it isn’t. We do it though, not because the lifestyle is perfect or that $170 every couple weeks really makes us feel rich, but because we really do want to give back to the community and serve in a meaningful way.
I was one of the many AmeriCorps members who were a part of the response effort following the tornado that hit Joplin, MO and I can’t think of a greater example of just how selfless AmeriCorps members can be, and just how effective they are as volunteers. AmeriCorps members were some of the first people on the scene in Joplin, driving from their disaster work in St. Louis to arrive only hours after the tornado had hit. Others, like myself, were there within 36 hours.
There was no system in place when we arrived, no direction on where to begin or what to do from there. We hit the ground running and adapted to the situation, becoming leaders for the other volunteers that followed. It is what the program teaches members, to use what is available and do the as much good possible with it. We were forced into unfamiliar surroundings, unpredictable challenges and we not only survived, we thrived.
The AmeriCorps presence in Joplin ended up coordinating over 60,000 volunteers and saving the city over $17 million dollars. That work hasn’t stopped either. Nine months later, the program still has teams on the ground working in a variety of ways to continue the effort it started and help the city of Joplin regain its footing.
It’s easy to look at the expense involved in a program like AmeriCorps and be dismissive, to question whether the results are worth what goes into it. I’d say talk to the residents of Joplin. Like the woman I met while coordinating clean up crews in the field. Her house was destroyed and couldn’t even get access to her own street to help her husband clean up their property, much less get additional help from anyone else. She was already stressed with the damage that had been done to her home, her family, and her life. Now she had the added frustration of having to deal with it all on her own. Luckily, with the “paid volunteers” on the ground, she didn’t have to continue on her own. We were able to bypass the barricades and direct a group of volunteers to what was left of her house and clear the property by the end of the day.
Sometimes it pays to have trained volunteers in a situation like that, people that are not just there for a day or two, but who are working 16 hour days for months at a time. That have the experience and dedication required to be as effective as possible in that situation. After being impressed and awed by our work myself, all I can say is, sometimes the expense is worth it.