Wednesday, February 13, 2008


About two weeks ago a set of tornadoes tore through the state of Tennessee leaving over 50 people dead and over 120 homes destroyed. Given the state of this disaster, AmeriCorps*NCCC was approached by several relief efforts asking for a team of 10 individuals to come up and help with disaster relief for 30 days. I volunteered to be one of these ten.

I am no longer with in Bay St. Louis, MS with my beloved Blue 7. Instead, I am a part of a 10-person composite team that drove up from the Gulf Coast this past Monday to help with disaster relief.

Today was my first day on-site and I could not believe my eyes. I have never seen anything like this before. Driving through Macon County (one of the poorest and hardest hit counties in Tenneseee) you could just see the merciless path the tornado took, tearing up homes, businesses, any tree or structure in its way. Coming from the Gulf Coast, it is amazing to see the difference between hurricane and tornado damage. Areas hit by hurricanes look like they have been beaten around in a washing machine--rotting, crumbling damage. Tornado damage is a much cleaner cut, yet devastating nonetheless. Tornadoes pick things up clear in their path, sweep them cleanly off the ground and smash them down in another location.

Our first job today was at an elderly man's home where his shed had been swept cleanly off its foundation and thrown 20 feet into his backyard, smashing to the ground, caving in on its belongings. Working with an AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team, we worked on breaking down the shed, salvaging the items inside, and then clearing it out of his yard, piece by piece.

Thankfully all the man had lost was this shed, but it still effected me nonetheless. Pulling out all of his old tools and lawn furniture and reducing them to debris felt sad--watching one's belongings turn into garbage by no fault of their own. However, as I have started to learn from those effected by Katrina--stuff is just stuff, and you had better come to terms with that because you just never know when it could be lost forever. I visited my godmother in New Orleans before heading up to Tennessee and she gave me a good piece of advice, having lost her home herself in Katrina. She told me, "I think everyone should take a walk through their house and identify about 10 things that would absolutely kill them to lose. Identify those 10 things and come to terms with the impermanence of everything else. Let your stuff be just that...stuff." In remembering her words, I let go of my sadness as I diposed of his ancient newspaper collection.


I am writing this post from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi within the walls of Lagniappe Presbyterian Church where I am working in my second phase of AmeriCorps*NCCC. Before I delve into the Katrina restoration in this beautiful community on the coast, I need to take you back to my first project at Maple Elementary School in Sacramento, California. To understand where I am now, you must understand the effect my first project had on me and the pace it set for me before arriving in Mississippi. Let me take you back a few months to my first project as an AmeriCorps*NCCC member...

AmeriCorps*NCCC is arranged as a four-phase program in which you will complete four service projects during your 10-month commitment. A team-based program, you work with a 10-12 person team the entire time, completing projects in each of AmeriCorps' target areas: environment, education, disaster relief, and unmet human needs.

My team--the lively and diverse Blue 7--was first assigned to an education project at Maple Elementary School in South Sacramento. This initial assignment was met with mixed emotions--excitement to spend time working with children, disappointment to spend the next few months living on the same base where we had just spent the last month training.

(The first month in NCCC is called "Corps Training Institute" where all members are not only certified in CPR, First Aid, and Disaster Relief but also trained and groomed as leaders within the Corps...AKA most everyone is very excited for the month to end and project assignments --implying relocation--to be delivered.)

Mixed emotions aside, it was now our job to embrace the assignment and learn about the community in which we were to serve. In doing our research, the need became evident and initial feelings of disappointment began to fade as we learned that we would be working at a school that had been sanctioned so many times due to low test scores that teacher's salaries were now in jeopardy. We learned that with a school population of 70% Hispanic and 30% Asian, English was a second language for the vast majority of the school. We learned that crimes rates were high, incomes were low, and nearly every single student was on free government lunch due to welfare.

As the first AmeriCorps team to ever step foot within this low-scoring high-risk school, our responsibilities were to act as tutors and mentors to the children, each of us working in our own classroom. Our quantifiable goals were to help raise their reading & math test scores by 10-20% through 1 on 1 tutoring. Our intangible goals--the ones that ended up far surpassing the importance of the tangible test scores--were to act as role models for children who needed people to look up to.

Next post, day one at Maple Elementary and the many incredible days that followed :)