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Disaster Relief Recap

By Rachel Wagner, Development and Communications Specialist

This month, after a thirty-day deployment to Puerto Rico, our crew of six AmeriCorps members and three staff returned from assisting with ongoing disaster relief. Upon arriving in July, our Conservation Corps crew joined other AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams (A-DRT) in Puerto Rico including Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC), AmeriCorps St. Louis, and St. Bernard Project. Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa took over operations as the other teams finished their deployments.

The goals of this deployment were to 1) return individuals and families back to safe, sanitary, and secure homes; and 2) support local organizations in their efforts to aid Puerto Rico. The team operated from a recovery office in Guaynabo and at Sacred Heart University in San Juan. Disaster relief activities included developing a registry for high priority cases, referring cases with unmet needs, developing and conducting trainings for local organizations, and providing outreach across the island.

Dillon Pride, a Corps member who returned recently from deployment, said “This is my 3rd deployment and it’s amazing to see how much the AmeriCorps members grow in 30 short days and what an impact we can make in communities. Not only do the people in distress get the help that they desperately need but the AmeriCorps members learn flexibility, teamwork, physical strength, and I believe it also provides an inner strength that pushes our members to strive for bigger and better things once their term is done.”

Take a closer look at some of the projects our crew worked on during their time in Puerto Rico:

Deployment Newsletter

One of our Iowa crew members, Audrey Lash, held the position of Public Information Officer for AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams while deployed in Puerto Rico. Along with countless other responsibilities, she was tasked with creating the final edition of a newsletter that has been coming out monthly throughout the deployment. Check it out.

Beach Clean-up

On August 11th, six members of Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa, along with CNCS Disaster Cadre Member, Brie Owades, joined The Mission Continues and their Puerto Rico Service Platoon for a beach clean-up service event in Ponce, Puerto Rico. The Mission Continues is a nationwide non-profit that connects veterans who are adjusting to civilian life and empowers them to find purpose in their communities by providing opportunities for them to get involved. Around thirty total volunteers of all ages and backgrounds spent the day cleaning Playa la Guancha, a sea turtle nesting area, shoreline and surrounding trails. After four hours of service work, the group collected over ten large bags of various trash, including broken glass, litter, and assorted plastics. At the end of the clean-up, all volunteers ate and celebrated together in the nearby plaza.

Volunteer Management for NGOs

Iowa crew member Audrey Lash, AmeriCorps Community Engagement Team Member, along with Andres Acosta, a FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison, met with five different Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Maricao, Puerto Rico to teach them about volunteer management. Audrey presented the Hands on Connect program while Andres Acosta translated, since most of the NGOs only speak Spanish. Learning about volunteer management and the Hands on Connect platform was very important as it teaches NGOs how to track their volunteer hours, keep in contact with volunteers, and create events for their organization. Carolina Covington was onsite as well to answer any questions about the Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair (VALOR) program. The VALOR program allows NGOs and local organizations to partner with FEMA to get needed supplies, materials and personnel to make temporary repairs that allows survivors to return to or continue to stay in their home after a natural disaster, like Hurricane Maria.

Data Management

The VALOR program (Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair) provides Voluntary Agencies and NGOs with the means to make minor repairs on homes at no charge to the property owner. Sarah Klein, Data Management Specialist for the ACE Team, and Brian Owades, CNCS Disaster Cadre Member, worked on the AmeriCorps VALOR Tracking and Reporting Database while in Puerto Rico. Part of Sarah’s role was adding newly VALOR-vetted organizations to the database and reporting forms, which allowed organizations to self-report homes that were being or had been repaired through the program. Ultimately, the process allows them to see the how and where FEMA Material Request Form supplies are being utilized, which provides them with important feedback on the effectiveness of the VALOR program in assisting survivors and will help determine if this program is a viable option for future natural disasters.

In addition, Sarah also worked with Carolina Covington and Briana Owades as part of the AmeriCorps Community Engagement (ACE) Team, which meant they met regularly with Voluntary Agencies to discuss the VALOR program, volunteer management, and the new reporting process. The team collected feedback, concerns, and questions about VALOR for FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaisons. They discussed those needs and came to an amicable solution for all organizations involved.

“My role as both an ACE Team member and Data Management Specialist gave me a deep appreciation for all the incredible people of Puerto Rico who have dedicated their time, money, and energy to helping their communities. It was truly inspiring to meet with person after person, organization after organization that were all working towards the same goal of helping survivors restore their homes and livelihoods.” – Sarah Klein, ACE Team Member and Data Management Specialist

Service at a Local Elementary School

One Saturday during deployment, three Field Liaisons (Dillon Pride, Drew Evans, Cory Rhinehart) and the Operations Chief (Anja Hogan) for the deployment team went to Escuela Intermedia Rafael Martinez Nadal de Guaynabo, a local elementary school. Jonathan Ocasio, pastor at the local church Mar Azul, let AmeriCorps utilize a warehouse space for nine months, and in return all he asked for was help cleaning up some fallen trees and overgrown brush at the elementary school that had not been addressed since Hurricane Maria hit. “You all have the heart of what it means to be in service to others. We are so grateful that you are here today to help. And the four of you are doing the work of what we think forty would normally do,” said Jonathan Ocasio. The school director hopes to have the school operational starting this school year.

“It felt good to give back to somebody who was gracious enough to lend a warehouse space to AmeriCorps over the course of nine months. Our service meant the world to them, even though it was just a small gesture. It is going to be difficult to leave Puerto Rico knowing that there is still so much work to do.” -Cory Rhinehart, ADRT Field Liaison