How Two Weeks of Volunteering Transformed Into Ten Years of Service
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” — Rabindranath Tagore
It was an honor to be an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps member. As part of the experience, my team and I continually faced aspects beyond our control: teammates, assignments, location, housing…One aspect I cherished the most about my team was that through all challenges we focused on what was within our control: how we could be of service. We may have argued over who ate the last chocolate granola bar (a luxury when working on a government stipend) on the way to build a bridge in a swampy Louisiana park, but once our steel toed boots touched the ground we were all focused on the project we were called to complete. Not only did we fulfill our commitment to service, but we did it with joy.
I was able to continue working in the spirit of joyful service when AmeriCorps Alums provided the opportunity for disaster relief work post-Katrina in New Orleans. A two-week volunteer experience evolved into two years as a Volunteer Director of Hands On New Orleans in partnership with First Street United Methodist Church and the Central City community. People came from across the world to give what they could from 2x4s to forward thinking to rebuild a city they had grown to call home.
Our 24-7 volunteer center was a whirlwind of activity and a place where many could start, continue, or renew their commitment to service. It was among a church community room turned bunkhouse for 100+ volunteers that I heard late night giggles and whispers of volunteers trading stories of crushing through walls in their favorite Tyvek suit. Morning tears of exhaustion fell among the mountains of shovels, hammers, and goggles when faced with the reality and scope of work to be done on yet another day. Among the dried tears were sighs of release, a focus on how much a dedicated team can accomplish, and a renewed determination to give all the day would allow — and a little more. Under the sweltering sun, I saw volunteers and residents clasp hands over a pile of boards, trash, and moldy memories that were once called home. During Sunday service, I was surrounded by songs I had never sung and felt strength I had never known. The opportunity to volunteer allowed us to share horror and hope, destruction and rebuilding, aftermath and inception.
Ten years later, the work in New Orleans is not over, however, neither are the lessons. Serving as an AmeriCorps alum after Katrina in New Orleans helped me develop a deeper understanding that emergencies can also lead to opportunities. When communities have been impacted by an emergency, there is often chaos, disruption, and systems are cracked open. Systematic and historic injustices can rise to the surface and new relationships, structures, and approaches can be implemented. Communities can creatively rebuild no matter the emergency they are facing including natural and human made disasters, national epidemics, and local issues.
The experience in New Orleans led me to a three continent, 30 country exploration of the intersection of arts, community development, and emergency management through community service, arts, and academics. A letter I wrote home during my time in New Orleans is a part of my graduate thesis focused on the role of artists in disaster recovery. Today, I write, speak, and organize projects that focus on building community resilience through the arts.
While first volunteering in New Orleans, I held onto the naive optimism of rapidly rebuilding an entire community. As I continued working, the community I served proved to rebuild and redefine me. Some residents assert that their homes, their lives, their communities have progressed because of volunteer efforts. I also believe that my home, my life, and my community has progressed because of residents. When we serve our reach is endless and we may receive the greatest gift of all: the joy of service.
Author Bio: Amelia Brown is a writer, speaker, artist and consultant with more than 20 years of community development experience spanning four continents. She earned a self-designed master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in integrating arts, emergency management, and community development. She recently was featured in article series focused on crisis and creativity on Springboard for the Arts Creative Exchange, presented on the role of arts in disaster recovery at the 2015 International Award for Public Art, Cities of Climate Change Conference in Auckland, New Zealand, and coordinated commemoration events for the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is the founder of Emergency Arts, a central resource dedicated to building a cross-sector network, strengthening community resilience, and advancing arts as integral to emergency management.