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Friday, October 7, 2016

When disaster strikes, AmeriCorps will be there to help - By Michelle Libby



Last Friday, AmeriCorps volunteers gathered at Camp William Hinds in Raymond to train for one of their ancillary responsibilities, running a volunteer reception center to manage the volunteers who step up when a disaster strikes. September was National Preparedness month.

The AmeriCorps volunteers were from two of Maine’s largest programs, the SySTEM REAL AmeriCorps Program and the Goodwill Multilingual Leadership Corps. 

The SySTEM REAL AmeriCorps program places teams of AmeriCorps volunteers in schools throughout the Windham/Raymond school district. Volunteers work to increase student academic achievement, as well as social and emotional learning, by implementing STEM-based and service-learning programming that allows students develop new skills and use them to create a positive impact in their communities.

Goodwill's Multilingual Leadership Corps places AmeriCorps volunteers in Maine schools, housing communities, and nonprofits to engage K-12 English Language Learners through mentoring, goal-setting, school skills support, and community engagement activities.

There are AmeriCorps volunteers in 14 of the 16 counties in Maine. 

“This event will train our community's AmeriCorps volunteers in organizing and facilitating an emergency-response volunteer reception center, through which a community manages its volunteers and coordinates their efforts in times of disaster,” said Fernando Hinojosa, outreach and development director for RSU 14 Katahdin Program. 

“AmeriCorps volunteers are trained to respond to a variety of emergencies within the communities they serve. Should an emergency (such as a natural disaster) arise in Windham, or elsewhere in the Greater Portland area, our AmeriCorps volunteers will be participating in the relief effort,” he added.
When a disaster strikes be it a flood, earthquake, or tornado, volunteers come out of the woodwork to help with clean up and other needs the victims might have. AmeriCorps volunteers spring into action to screen the influx of volunteers and match them up with a need in the area through the reception centers. This screening process allows the people in charge to know what skills the volunteers have and can also discourage those who wouldn’t be helpful. 

“I had no idea what spontaneous volunteering was. It is the overwhelming number of people who want to help,” said Haley McCracken. “Everyone is so flooded with volunteers.”

The trainings help to deal with “unaffiliated volunteers and unsolicited donations,” which sometimes are helpful and other times make the job more difficult, for example if they’re not insured or working through the Red Cross. 

AmeriCorp volunteers sign up to help with a variety of projects all over the country. Jessica Swartz was a stay-at-home mom who had a degree in marketing and advertising and did some substitute teaching at Windham Primary School before she signed up. Now she is the first AmeriCorps volunteer at WPS, coordinating projects like a garden club, STEM learning and animal care and compassion lessons. 

“I developed a love for children. AmeriCorps was a way to leave the world a better place by leaving better children,” she said. AmeriCorps provides a living stipend for some of the volunteers and after a term, they receive a Segal Education Award to be used to pay off student debt or to pay for any higher education that accepts financial aid, according to Michael Ashmore, program development and training officer from the Maine Commission for Community Service, the organization that funds the AmeriCorps grants in the state. 
 
Terms can be a full year or part time. Full time is 450 hours. The amount of the award is dependent on the term. A 1,700 hour member receives approximately $6,000. Parents or grandparents can give their award to their children or grandchildren, who then will have seven years to use it. 

The living stipend is just below the poverty level, according to Ashmore. “Part of the experience is to experience what people are living like while you’re serving,” he said. There are currently 400 volunteers serving in the state full and part time. Volunteers can be from 17 to 107. 

“I’ve been put through courses I never would have had the opportunity to take,” Swartz said. “This rounds out your full education.” From trauma training to triggers training, Swartz is proud of the broad scope of programs they participate in.  

Will Smith from Michigan has been with AmeriCorps for two years. Last year he worked with the FEMA Corps, where he did disaster training and worked a disaster in South Carolina. He served 10 to 12 hour days for two weeks, then 10 hour days for a month after the initial disaster. “When I was first deployed there, I had to learn the ropes. Serving with an organization, we had to do on the spot learning,” Smith said. “I felt like there was a lot of dependence on us.”

September 30 was AmeriCorps Stand Down Day, where programs all over the country look at their emergency plans, personal and professional,” said Ashmore. 

“They are on call for responding for natural disasters. They are able and prepared to do it,” Ashmore said. “Count on us. We’re there when you need us to be.” 

For more information on the program or to find out about having AmeriCorps volunteers at your not-for-profit, faith based or government agency, visit www.maineservicecommission.gov or www. NationalService.gov.





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