I’ve been a crew leader with TxCC for almost two years now and today is my last day. It’s also my first attempt at a blog post and I’m having a hard time trying to find a way to condense my whole TxCC experience down to just a few paragraphs. I’ve logged over 4,300 hours with this program, responded to four disasters in four different states, spiked in New Mexico and all over Texas, cut tread, built rock walls, cut down hundreds of hazard trees, killed countless invasive plants, managed volunteers, listened to homeowners stories….the list goes on and on. Some of the work I loved, and some not so much. At times my crews made me so proud I couldn’t stop bragging about them, and at other times I’ve wanted to strangle the whole lot. At the end of the day, they’ve been my weird little family and I’ll never lose that bond.
But here is the real take-away message and, to me, it’s the biggest surprise of them all. From that jumbled assortment of people thrown together in a cargo van, being sent all over the country with little to no idea of what exactly to expect… this ‘jobs training’ program… it really works. Somewhere along the meandering path I’ve had with TxCC, I’m not sure when or where, I became someone you’d want to hire. A competent, capable leader, with a variety of technical, logistical, and communication skills… someone who can both hold her own at a meeting with an important community leader, or geek out about chainsaws with a park employee.
So now I’m off to a new job with the Forest Service. I feel ready and trained, but I also know that I’ll miss the hell out of this program. Thanks, TxCC.
When I signed up for a position on a TxCC field crew, I never actually thought I would get sent out on a disaster response, so imagine the excitement when my crew was deployed in June to Eagle Pass, Tx. Our mission was to assist the community which had been badly affected by flooding along the Rio Grande.
Our work was centered around setting up a Joint Assistance Center (JAC) in order to provide a localized place for affected families in the community to come and receive help. We also managed the donations center, which essentially meant wrangling people (volunteers and survivors) in a large gymnasium full of clothing and food.
Day one revealed the biggest challenge we would face over the course of our 8 days in Eagle Pass, the language barrier. As a small border town, over 90%of the locals spoke Spanish. Some of our crew had basic Spanish skills while other had none and it took some amazing volunteers diligently acting as our translators and borrowed phrase books for us to assist the people that needed it.
Once we had figured that out, we were able to set up a registration process that allowed families to move through the JAC and visit with the agencies the needed as well as pick up donations.
The hardest part of the deployment was never really being able to break away from the recovery mindset and decompress. All of the assistance efforts were based in the middle school: the JAC, Red Cross headquarters, the Donations Center, the Survivor Shelter, and our own volunteer shelter. We were given a classroom in an annex building to sleep in; it also housed other recovery groups’ offices. We were in work mode really all the time, with the exception being when we entered our little classroom for the night.
It was challenging, but the people we met and befriended in that small, tight-knit community showed us just how much our work was appreciated and it was during those moments of thanks that I felt truly humbled.
The term disaster can refer to an event, or series of events, natural or human induced that causes a significant amount of damage; whether it be in loss of lives or in the physical shifting of the environment. “Disaster” in and of itself doesn’t refer to a specific event, but rather to its scale, its effect. Since returning from my 2 weeks in West, working disaster relief and thinking about disaster, the main idea that keeps coming back to me is the severing that occurs when disaster strikes. The disruption of time and space, of a place and its functions. The expulsion of a people from the routine of their daily lives, into something unimaginable, with no set guidelines or instruction manual. This is certainly the case for the town of West, Texas, a small community of about 3,000, that became a household name when a fertilizer plant exploded on April 17th, 2013.
As TxCC’s Emergency Response Team working in West, our goal was to help facilitate the transition into this new reality. We dealt with critical aspects of disaster recovery that can be neglected when tragedy hits: donations and volunteer management. After deploying to West, our crew was hit with the insanity of West Fest Fairgrounds donation site, the major drop off and distribution center for donations that oversaw over 120 tons of donations. Displaced residents, unclear of the fates of their homes and families members, picked through piles of donations. Over 5,000 volunteers came to help during our time here. We recorded their volunteer hours and other data so that their presence will help reduce the local cost of the disaster and then we coordinated precise locations and tasks so that their work could be best utilized.
Upon learning the Incident Command operational systems from the immediate responders, Team Rubicon, our crews were thrown into the field. The entire location was our responsibility; feeding, volunteer reception and coordination and handling the tons of donations that were received daily. We developed a volunteer reception center that could handle the flow of people coming to lend a hand, and directed these people to crew members working in the warehouse itself for task delegation. We also had a team of people in the office, updating reports and data. We received contact information for the hundreds of people offering services, developed a media management program, made site maps of affected areas, and put up a facebook page as an informational resource.
As operations expanded over the course of the next few days, our responsibilities shifted from West Fest to the other locations that were providing relief and resources. ERT members were stationed at the Joint Assistance Facility (JAC), where they assisted over 80 homeowners with intake forms so that they could receive free assistance from volunteer organizations. Team members coordinated volunteers with locations needing assistance all over the city, and arranged for critical resources to be brought into the areas most devastated by the explosion. We managed reentry registration, handing out damage assessments to affected homeowners and helping guide them to the resources they needed. We developed a database for volunteer hours and homeowner intake forms that was maintained daily, and served as an informational platform to the public. We dedicated our time to creating a structure that could be transitioned to city appointed leaders, who would lead the long term recovery program.
The deployment in West was our crew’s first experience leading during a disaster, and we all struggled and overcame the challenges it presented together. We worked fourteen hour days, getting lost in our work and all that needed to be done, and slept in the office that served as our home base. We cried with each other from the stress, bad food and exhaustion, but also for the tragedy and grief of our temporary home and all the people in it we had quickly come to love. We helped people find their dogs, we listened to their stories, we fed them and ate (too much) and we bonded about Jesus. We even met Batman, the weirdest and most righteous volunteer ever. We learned about resilience and optimism, and that people can get through the unimaginable if they stick together.
It’s 10 AM on a weekend and hundreds of Texas A&M University students are gathered together under a group of blackened pine trees in a winter woodland silenced a year ago by wildfire. And they were about to add a bit of spring to this important forest. Over two weekends (February 16 & 17 and 23 & 24) 8,800 drought resistant loblolly pine saplings were planted in the rocky, difficult soils of Bastrop State Park. The six hundred Aggie volunteers were lead by Texas A&M Forest Service, Bastrop State Park Staff, and yours truly – the Texas Conservation Corps.
After a damaging fire in Bastrop in 2011, the park needs help with becoming green again. Some areas in the park were so hot during the fire that saplings are not appearing on their own – and that’s where this group comes in. On this weekend, an organized team came through with a mission: rebuild this forest. The overall goal for the next five years is to plant 1,000,000 saplings in this once and future forest. Nothing is impossible, especially when people come together through weekends like this.
Looking forward twenty years from now, a fine looking forest is on the horizon at Bastrop State Park- all thanks to the men and women that tirelessly put time into this space. And that deserves an Aggie Whoop!
On Thursday, September 20th 6 crew members/leaders and I went to Bastrop to volunteer with the Bastrop Long Term Recovery Team as Build Captains with KaBOOM!– a non-profit organization focused on keeping play in children’s lives by constructing playgrounds in parks around the US. As Build Captains, we lead crews of 10 to 30 in constructing different parts of the playground and park area. Some leaders were in charge of bolting together pieces, cementing in all the beams, and even putting in and planting a community garden, which was my job.
The day started early for us, arriving in Bastrop at 6:30am so that we could prepare the site and get out all of the tools and supplies that would be needed. Volunteers started arriving in waves from 7:30 to 8:30 representing groups like PALS, a community service group at Bastrop High School, The ESPN Longhorn Network, HEB, Texas Forest Service, and many community members. We fueled up with breakfast tacos, got the blood flowing with an aerobics warm up, and got a pep-talk from Allie, our Building Coordinator. After our opening ceremony, the volunteers were divided up in to their crews, identified by Disney characters, and scattered around the work sites to begin their project, for we had only 6 hours to complete a whole park.
My job was to get the garden beds ready for planting and plant all the plants that were donated to the park. My group was made up of the high school students from Bastrop that were part of PALS. These young individuals were such a blast to work with. As soon as we got our crew together they were anxious to know what the directions were, where everything was, want needed to be planted… their excitement was so contagious that it made the project not only get finished smoothly, but beautifully as well. Right before we planted the vegetables and herbs, we had over 20 elementary students come in to learn how to plant. The high school members jumped right in, took a few kids, and helped them get their hands dirty. I’ve never seen a garden get planted to fast.
While working with my group, I made sure to make my rounds, check in on other ECorps members and see how the playground was progressing. What a surprise I got when I looked up and saw shade structures, a cement block pathway, and all of those scattered parts being put together. It was all coming together into one fantastic looking park. Families and children will be going to this park for years to come, to play, picnic, and enjoy the scenery, but I will always have that memory of seeing nothing in that spot, and within one day’s work, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, watching a park get put together, piece by piece.
A few months ago, I decided to join Austin AmeriCorps Alums despite the fact that I am currently serving as a crew leader with the Environmental Corps. Prior to this position, I worked with AmeriCorps VISTA in Ithaca, NY and AmeriCorps NCCC at the Perry Point, MD campus. I was disheartened to find the Austin AmeriCorps Alums chapter floundering. I decided to become a chapter leader and infuse the group with my AmeriCorps passion. Our first big event was going to be the United Way Day of Caring on September 14th. However, the event fell on a Friday and our members were unable to attend. I saw a local event that needed volunteers and immediately thought of our SLA crews.
When I contacted Hands on Central Texas about the event, Nikki Krueger, Director of Volunteer Engagement- Hands on Central Texas, was ecstatic. She knew all about E-Corps and was excited to get us going. Later on, when it had rained heavily on the workday, she said that E-Corps was the one group of volunteers she could count on to not complain.
On the day of the event, our students attended a luncheon at The Long Center for the Performing Arts. Our members ate amazing catered food on tables with pristine white table clothes, which blew their minds, and networked with many influential community members. One of the speakers , took the time to recognize E-Corps’ work in Bastrop. She is a Bastrop resident and praised our organizations efforts.
While on site at J.J. Pickle Elementary School, members were divided into several groups. We weeded vegetable and butterfly gardens, transplanted plants, mulched trees and shrubs, built benches, weeded a Peace Garden, improved their compost system, and set up time-lapse cameras.
Our site sponsor, Judith Hutchinson, teacher at J.J. Pickle Elementary School, was welcoming and appreciative of our work. She also has received several grants for garden beds, decks, permaculture, and rain gardens. She invited us to come assist her with the rain garden and we, in turn, invited her to come to American YouthWorks.
We learned a lot while volunteering for the United Way Day of Caring but we gave even more.
As an Environmental Corps Crew Leader, I am accustomed to working hard and getting sweaty, but its usually in the context of a park, woodland, or forest. On June 6th, the SLA Crew Leaders and Members got a taste of a different kind of hard work, when we volunteered for the day with Habitat for Humanity (H4H).
The first and most noticeable difference was the start time. We usually get to school at 7:45-8am, but we needed to get to school at 7am for an early start with H4H. When we arrived at the jobsite, we were greeted by a longtime volunteer named Bill who had been volunteering with H4H for over 10 years. We received a brief orientation from Bree and Billy, the project managers, and they talked about safety, gave us some vocabulary for the tools and building materials, and emphasized that we would be working in controlled chaos, but it would all work out wonderfully.
We then started the first step of building the house- raising the first exterior frame. This is a special moment, and Yosef, the man whose house we were building, had a huge smile on his face as we lifted the frame high and set it in with the nail guns and bracing. Yosef had contributed over 400 hours of sweat equity in order to qualify for getting his own house, and had volunteered with H4H during the daytime, then went to his job as a night cab driver in the evening. This was a happy day for him, and he was beaming.
Then the real work began. We all had different jobs, and we worked under the supervision of the longtime volunteers and a few AmeriCorps members with H4H. They were really fun to work with, and we swapped stories and talked about our various AmeriCorps positions. We raised framing for the house, secured it with bracing and with nail guns, we raised the roof framing, and we wrapped the house in insulation. Everything had to be done in a special order so it would all fit together, and everything had to be precise and level.
It was very hot working hard in the sun. There was no shade to speak of, and the concrete slab of the foundation radiated heat. I found myself chugging water even more furiously than I usually do on the trail. The repetitive motion of the nailing and holding things steady made my muscles ache. It was physically demanding work, that also required mental focus. At the end of the day, we said our goodbyes to Yosef and the other volunteers. It was a good feeling to have put in a hard days work for a good cause, and we learned many carpentry skills which can help us be more technically proficient with our regular ECorps work. All in all, it was good to take a step back from our regular job, and I think we all gained a fresh perspective that will aid us in our future work. Madeline Enos, SLA E-Corps crew Leader