Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Things I Have Learned in FEMA Corps

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

-- Emily Dickinson  (Hat tip: Kevin Seifert)

The motto of Americorps NCCC is, as I've referenced a time or two in this space, "strengthening communities, developing leaders". I interpret the latter part to mean that NCCC is not simply teaching us how to command a group of fellow younglings, or how to build and market an idea, but teaching us how to be better people: at our jobs, at being part of something larger than ourselves, at life. Looking at it this way, every little revelation and every minor lesson becomes part of something bigger, part of your own personal life journey (or whatever the buzzword is these days) that will help you out somewhere down the road. Here are a few of the little things I've learned over the past four months in FEMA Corps. 


-When going on spike, it is impossible to pack "too many" pairs of socks or underwear. 

-The physical limitations imposed by your government-issued red bag (and 15-passenger van) are nothing compared to sheer willpower and determination of the Corps Member in question.

-Having said that, when you live hermit-crab style out of a house on your back, you have to suck it up and leave some stuff at home. Taking little luxuries where you can find them on the road is vastly preferable to cramming knickknacks into your overcrowded backpack.


-Canvassing door-to-door in a disaster-stricken community is a hell of a thing to do every day. The vast, vast majority of people you meet will be either a) indifferent towards you but willing to hear you out, or b) insanely kind, helpful and tolerant (of you), given the circumstances. Other people will be c) a twisted-up ball of anger and sadness and the feeling of being overwhelmed, which is totally fine. It's your job to reach them anyway and at least provide the basic information they need to get through the rebuilding process. 

-Some people, however, do not fall into any of these three categories. They will fling verbal clods of poo at you simply because you are there and they can throw 'em at a stranger without suffering remorse or future consequences. These are what anthropologists call 'jerks', and they are a part of life. 

-Canvassing hundreds of homes that have been inundated by between one and ten feet of floodwater will make you want to never, ever ever buy a home that doesn’t have a seawall that would make Herod the Great proud sitting between it and the deep dark ocean. It will also transform you into a pipe-smoking, mustachioed connoisseur of doorknobs, door-knockers, mailboxes, doorbell sounds and a dozen other totally mundane things that will eventually comprise your entire world.

-The people at the Subway on Atlantic Avenue in Freeport who let your entire team come there to pee twice a day, without hassling you about it or making you buy anything, are the nicest people in the whole entire world.

-Tangentially, there is no worse feeling on Earth than desperately needing to pee, in a residential neighborhood with no bathroom in sight, and finally happening upon a providential synagogue only to find it locked, because it’s 11 AM on a Tuesday and no rabbi in his right mind would be there. This may also lead to a serious crisis of faith, resolved only by the miraculous (and much-delayed, I might add) appearance of a filthy Citgo toilet just four short blocks away. 


-You will not always be able to help everybody all the time, because other things will get in the way. Sometimes these are imposed by the rules and regulations of your organization(s), sometimes by storm-related conditions (i.e. roadblocks, gas shortages), and sometimes because fuck you, that's why (this may also apply to the first two items). This happens. It sucks, but it happens, and it's worth putting up with because the work you do eventually get to do is important and valuable and interesting. There will be lousy bosses and paperwork and inexplicable delays, because those happen everywhere due to vexing imperfections in the human race. I'm not saying that one should blindly accept such things, but it's worth keeping in mind that they are not unique to this particular place and time.

-You have to be willing to accept that you will probably never see the full effect of your own contributions towards a survivor's recovery and well-being. Building a house with your own hands that somebody can move into is gratifying, tangible and absolutely worth doing. Handing them a flier and telling them to register with FEMA for this, that and the other reason is intangible, frequently unfulfilling and just as absolutely worth doing. You have to take that mental step beyond your immediate efforts and recognize that what you're doing has far greater effects than you can see in that moment. (And in that sentence, I realize more clearly than I ever have the reason why Service Learning Initiators are needed, and why service learning is such a thing in Americorps: it's essentially what I just said.)

-Living with a team of fellow Corps Members is tough, because no matter how much you love your team, it's hard when there is no place to be, no one to be with other than with your team. You work together, commute together, cook and eat and clean together, even sleep together (Joe: "It's a small bed and I am one octopus of a Cornflake!"). If you don't get along with somebody, or even if you do almost all the time but not always, it still takes guts to talk to each other and work out your problems. You get to know these people as well as you know anybody, and sometimes--if you're an introvert like I am--you want nothing more than to get away from everybody. It's just something you have to learn to deal with and grow thereby.

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