Preconceived Notions, Experiences, and Learning to Balance

For the past 10 months I have served with AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) – FEMA Corps, based out of the Southern Region in Vicksburg, MS.  Call us disillusioned youth, out to make a difference in a broken world.  Call us misguided children being led by the ideal of a better world.  An army of youth willing to do what is necessary, whatever is asked of us.  Blind visionaries.  Hippies.  Or worse.

We’ve heard it all.  We’ve seen it with our very eyes.  We’ve shared our stories.  Offered views into who we are, what we’ve done.  Served.  And somehow things never change.

None of us knew what we were getting into.  We had preconceived notions of what service was and what we would be doing, how we would be serving in FEMA Corps.

I came in thinking one thing and quickly realized that I would get a glimpse into the behind the scenes work of Emergency Management, not the Disaster Response that Traditional NCCC is known for.   I accepted it.  Embraced it.  Others were not as accepting and left.  Or remained for a time before departing.

This wasn’t the place for all who started this program.  FEMA Corps isn’t for everyone.  Neither is Traditional NCCC.  It’s difficult.  It’s challenging.  It’s stressful.

We started with hesitation.  Nothing seemed solid beneath our feet.  Yet, we were asked to be flexible.  FEMA flexible.  I laugh when people ask me if I am flexible during interviews, and I have to hide the smile and explain how working in the inaugural class of this program has allowed me to extend my breaking point and learn to “go with the flow.”

We received our teams the night that Hurricane Isaac passed overhead, knocking out power at campus for the next three days.  We continued team building exercise and trainings.  And we attended more trainings as we journeyed to the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, AL.

The thing about training is that it can only prepare you so much.  We watched Hurricane Sandy become the Super Storm that we all knew we needed to keep this program afloat.  It was also the accumulation of all our fears and nightmares.

Like children, we all watched in fascinated horror, fixed on the devastation and destruction.  Each of us were affected by the storm as it crossed the path of family, friends, and loved ones, ripping into the fabric of our lives.

We took a breath for an instant as the skies cleared and found our boots in the sand, amongst the ruins of the city.

Months of training never prepared us for what we experienced in the days following our arrival.  We had all the technical skills, but nothing could prepare us for the hundreds of people who showed up each day, seeking assistance that we couldn’t provide.  Nobody warned us of the emotional impact, the trauma that poured forth into our lives.

It took everything in me to keep myself afloat.  And I, a Team Leader, was expected to be there for my team.

We all struggled.  Every member of every team.  Some more than others.  We leaned on one another for comfort, for support.  When the world came crashing down, we were forced to live and learn.  It was either that or leave.

Returning after a couple of weeks off over the holidays felt like returning to face the same demons, the same dragon that were slain the day before.  It was a darkness that could be felt deep within my chest, clutching hold and refusing to let go.

In time I found a way to center myself when the balance was off.  I let go of some things.  Took hold of others.  I focused on what I needed to do for myself and learned what it meant to be a leader for others.  I embraced the friendship and company of other Team Leaders and took pride in the work that the team was doing.

I reached out to those that I thought were lost and discovered that we were never alone in this battle.  We learned to take time for ourselves, to distance ourselves from the work, but continue to keep it intimate, personal.

In a month, we finish this program.  In a few short weeks we depart for campus one last time and discover where the next path leads.  For some it is obvious.  For others, it is a foreign concept that has yet to be grasped.  For me, it is a shadow that escapes the light that seeks answers.

We look back and ask ourselves how we got to this point.  Content, but in a way, wavering on a razors edge.  Balanced on a perch that seems to constantly move beneath us.

My team is currently working on editing and revising trainings that we received months ago, before our experiences in Sandy.  But how can you prepare someone for a life like this?  How do you train them when you look back and remember the emotions, the chaos, and the overpowering weight of the world on your shoulders?

In a way we are idealists, misguided children, and blind visionaries.  We all are seeking to change the world in some way, either through our service in AmeriCorps or out in the “real world.”  In doing so, we embark in a quest to challenge ourselves, to grow and become something so much more.

I smile when I hear people speak of this program without ever living through it.  They don’t know who we are or what we’ve gone through.  What we’ve done or who we’ve become.  In a way, they never will.

None of us expected this, but we accepted what we were given and moved on.  Some continued on this path with this new journey while others followed in the footsteps of others.  Like the saying says, “When life gives you lemons…”

God Bless and PEACE

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