CLINTON, Miss. -- A group of young, eager volunteers is gaining a world of public-service experience as Mississippi recovers from the severe storms and tornadoes of April 23-24.
The 18- to 25-year-olds hail from all sections of the nation and are assisting the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency. Dozens of them have helped at one time or another with everything from debris removal to fence-mending in storm-impacted areas.
The AmeriCorps youths and other volunteers had put in 17,334 hours and completed at least 323 different work assignments as of May 17.
AmeriCorps began arriving in Mississippi on April 28, just four days after the destructive storms and a day before a presidential disaster declaration was issued. Ever since, the hard-charging attitudes and distinctive shirts of AmeriCorps teams have been a dynamic presence in Attala, Choctaw, Holmes, Monroe, Oktibbeha, Union, Warren and Yazoo counties.
"It's intensive service to communities in need," said 25-year-old Vicky Sutak, who is based in St. Louis, Mo., and coordinates some of the Mississippi initiatives for AmeriCorps.
State and federal officials consider volunteer debris-removal to be particularly significant, since FEMA cannot enter private property to do such work. AmeriCorps can and does.
In many cases, debris removal is necessary to make land available for temporary housing or more permanent housing solutions, such as “Mississippi Cottages.” This is a major step in returning storm survivors to a sense of normalcy.
Volunteers sign up for a year of service and, in exchange, receive limited money for college expenses or student loans, according to Sutak.
Because of the dedication and enthusiasm they bring to their task, AmeriCorps volunteers are routinely likened to a domestic Peace Corps.
A former AmeriCorps volunteer and now full-time staffer, Sutak described the work as "an incredible experience. It's wonderful to help people in need. These volunteers are very generous, open and eager to assist others," she added.
Among the volunteers is Maria Savoca, 23, of Olympia, Wash. She graduated from Willamette University in 2009 with a degree in environmental science. The Mississippi operation is her first disaster-recovery assignment for AmeriCorps.
"I like being able to travel and help people," she said. "That's important to me. Now, my career is pulling debris and rubble apart."
Savoca also has delivered hygiene kits to storm survivors.
"This is fulfilling because I've never been a link in the chain of command before," she observed. "With this work, I have that link. I have an opportunity to get people what they need and get it to them quickly."
Likewise, public service is what motivated Jamie Casterton, 23, of Minneapolis, Minn., to volunteer for disaster-assistance work with AmeriCorps.
A 2009 Florida State University graduate who majored in psychology, Casterton said she enjoys “facilitating the flow of information so things can happen quicker for people who need assistance. We’re helping people get back to normal as fast as possible.
"This work is really good for skill-building,” Casterton added. “It will be helpful to my future career."
Jerry Harfoot, the FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison team leader for disaster-recovery operations in Mississippi, has nothing but praise for the AmeriCorps volunteers.
"They really have at it," he said. "They are just the most wonderful group to work with. They are a pleasure. Whatever we task them with, we never get a no. We always get a yes."
For more information, contact the State Emergency Joint Information Center at 866...