Since this is save AmeriCorps week I decided to write a short piece on my experience with AmeriCorps in Indiana.
On June 8, 2008 a 500 year flood ravaged most of central Indiana. In its wake it left a bright blue sky and a community in tears; both of which are common after natural disasters. It has been said that all people have greatness inside of them but most never find themselves in an environment that is conducive to greatness. As for the residents of Johnson County, this environment found them.
The immediate emergency responders selflessly braved the flood waters to rescue the stranded residents in a manner that more closely resembled a Hollywood action flick than small town America. It was apparent from this moment on that the community would rise to the challenge. Mother Nature had set the bar and it was ours to clear. The following is an account of a community rising out of the flood waters like a phoenix out of its ashes, instead of death and destruction it was a chance for new life.
In the days following the flood a proclamations trickled down from the mayor, then the governor, and finally the President of the United States that told the residents of Johnson County what they already knew, this was a national emergency. Luckily for the victims, the community was mobilized long before these documents were drafted. Residents that were spared came in to the devastated areas and began doing anything and everything to help. Soaked and spoiled furniture was hauled out of homes through holes in the walls carved by the flood waters.
The small liberal arts college was transformed into an information hub, first aid center, and food bank. FEMA trailers and tents started to pop up in the areas most affected. The Red Cross and local community churches joined the Army of Salvation and became actively mobilized in the relief efforts organizing funds, supplies, and hope. While there was an unmistakable sadness and depression among the residents everyone knew the worst was behind them. But like a boxer who takes a beating in the first round, they also knew the fight would not end soon.
According to the experts, victims of natural disasters must tell their stories 47 times before true healing can take place. Needless to say, stories were in no short supply in those days. Perhaps it is because this is all that remained. How do you replace shoe boxes full of family pictures, Christmas ornaments from 1958, or the markings on the wall that proved how tall your children were at 12 years old?
Yes these residents needed to tell these stories as many times as they could because now there was no other proof that a normal life had existed. They were given a clean slate that was not wanted or welcomed. By telling these stories they were proving that they do have a connection to this area, that they belonged here, and that when all else is gone perhaps home is really just a collection of stories.
In the months following the flood a new organization was formed, the likes of which our community had never seen and most communities never want to see. Johnson County Community Organizations Active in Disasters (JCCOAD) was the long-term disaster recovery organization that was charged with the mission to restore all homes to pre-flood conditions. It was at this stage that I finally became a part of a community organization.
In the flood recovery I was taken on as an AmeriCorps member and was baptized by fire. One of my first field assignments was to help in the reconstruction of a house that was nearly obliterated by the flood. Armed with extremely limited construction skills and the unwarranted confidence of most young men in their early twenties, I couldn’t wait to get started. This house had sat empty for almost a year since the flood came to pass. It was not until I began working on this particular job site that I learned the details of this case. A single mother had been living in a hotel room with her five children for over 54 weeks because there was no family around on which she could lean. I worked quickly.
The longer I was with AmeriCorps the more I encountered stories similar to this and I shutter to think how I would have reacted if I were forced to walk that particular mile. Eventually the two year anniversary of the flood came and went with little or no recognition. Everyone had long since told their 47 stories. Most of the people had been given their life back to only the detriment of their pocket books. Life went on, people still celebrated birthdays, people still got married, and people started to tell new stories.
As for me, I also began to tell a new story. I have a story of great men and women who did great things with no compensation and often times no recognition. My story is one of love and hope that is not easily surpassed. I am witness to a community that was unaware of its own greatness only to find it in the face of great adversity. I am certain that when I am old and grey I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I stood with great men and women; that we accomplished unreachable goals and are now better people for it. It was AmeriCorps that gave me this opportunity and I will never forget.