AUSTIN, Texas -- On a recent Saturday, the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) in Bastrop, Texas, was abuzz.
In a church community room that serves as the VRC quarters, 12 Houston-based Boy Scouts in uniform -- complete with merit badge sashes -- mixed with a group of weary Arlington, Texas, Baptist men whose ash-smeared clothing and heavy work gloves indicated they’d been cleaning scorched home sites.
Among them darted AmeriCorps members outfitted in forest green T-shirts, chatting with visitors, answering phones and entering data into laptops. Thirty young adults, 20 from the Austin area and 10 from Washington state, are bringing their energy and skills to help Texans help Bastrop County wildfire survivors under the AmeriCorps banner.
A national service program, AmeriCorps offers Good Samaritans of any age real-world experience in public service in exchange for low pay, long hours, rustic lodgings in a state park, student loan forgiveness and the rewards of helping people in need.
In Bastrop, that help is taking an innovative and pragmatic form. Using a database they’ve custom-built for the disaster, AmeriCorps members are helping to match volunteer and nonprofit agency workers with wildfire survivors who need help with recovery tasks.
“It’s great to have a chance to do work that’s meaningful,” said 24-year-old Austin resident Chelsea Bodamer, who handles communications for AmeriCorps in Bastrop. She joined AmeriCorps in January. “Every day you wake up and you’re ready to do the work that’s in front of you because it’s something you believe in.”
The VRC and AmeriCorps’ Bastrop work are a mission of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s unit that supports locally managed long-term recovery through volunteer groups and nonprofit agencies. Jamie Dake, who signed on with FEMA after a stint as an AmeriCorps member, recruited the Austin AmeriCorps team for Bastrop after learning about their work on other disasters.
“The thing I hear over and over every time we deploy AmeriCorps is, ‘We couldn’t have done it without them,’” Dake said. “AmeriCorps comes in to support the local nonprofit and volunteer organizations, not to supplant the work they do.”
Development of the Austin AmeriCorps group will also help the state of Texas build its capacity to deal with future disasters, Dake said. Then, when disaster happens, Lone Star State emergency managers will have the opportunity to call upon the Austin team to coordinate disaster volunteer and nonprofit groups to better serve disaster survivors.
Human skills meet technology in AmeriCorps’ Bastrop work. Members talk with both survivors and volunteers to determine survivors’ needs and the skills volunteers offer. Since AmeriCorps members continuously update this information in the VRC database, they can schedule volunteers for a fresh batch of survivors’ recovery and rebuilding projects each day, such as mending fences and clearing debris.
Approximately 200 Bastrop homeowners have requested help with recovery tasks from AmeriCorps and the VRC. Priority is given to survivors who are senior citizens or who have functional needs.
To date, more than 250 volunteers from around Texas have walked through the door and scores of others have offered help via phone or the Bastrop Relief website. They are either individuals eager to help or participants in service clubs that range from church groups to disaster relief organizations.
Agencies, groups and individuals interested in volunteering can register at the VRC at 3001 Loop 150 E., Bastrop, or by calling 512-332-2607. Volunteers can also register online at www.bastroprelief.org.
Volunteers are asked to visit the VRC on the day...