Responding to Natural Disaster at St. Lawrence Island

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, former JV AmeriCorps member Steven Fisher (Anchorage, AK ’16-17), who served at the American Red Cross of Alaska, shares his experience serving clients affected by the natural disaster that struck St. Lawrence Island.

On January 4, Alaska Dispatch News released notice of a Bering Sea storm that struck the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. Ocean surges, 75 mph hurricane winds, and blizzards damaged buildings and downed the phone lines in Savoonga.

Steven assessing damage with local Savoonga resident

A few days later, the Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager and I departed from Anchorage to reach Savoonga to assess the extent of damage, overall impact, weather conditions, and demographics of Savoonga as a disaster-affected community. Two staff members from Emergency Management from the State of Alaska arrived a day earlier, and we worked together in a coordinated effort.

Mayor Myron Kingeekuk immediately met us upon landing in Savoonga. We dropped off our bags at the old VPSO (Village Public Safety Officer) office and, without pause, began to gather information. We met with the school that sheltered residents during the storm. We learned that the wind had tossed and upturned four wheelers as people rode to the school for shelter. With low stocks of food at the store, shelter residents depended on staff food for families resting in the gym.

The next day and a half involved us slipping over the ice visiting each home in Savoonga. To accurately and consistently record the damage on each dwelling, we spoke with someone from each home and wrote their information on a chart and map, scribbling “heat lost in home” or “75% roofing off house.” For one home, a 16-foot wall had been torn off. With most dwellings having at least exterior damage, we assessed 22 homes had endured significant structural damage and one home had been completely destroyed with no repairs feasible.

We observed the damage of each home, but more importantly, listened to the stories of families who weathered the storm, filled with awe at their resilience and their focus on the safety of others. Nobody was hurt in the storm. More people expressed concerns for the homes of their parents and their grandparents than their own. One father offered to snowmobile me back to homes where people had gone hunting for the day. A table of elders deliberated over how this would burden the lack of subsistence food from melted ice. Rather than encountering stories of distress or exasperation, I encountered a community with the stimulus to rebuild and face the ambiguous reality of what’s next.

After sharing our findings with our Red Cross of Alaska colleagues and division leaders, we opened relief operations for those whose homes were most impacted by the storm; in total, we provided assistance to 127 individuals on our last night in Savoonga. This served as immediate assistance before Emergency Management could present their assessment to the Disaster Policy Cabinet, where the Governor could declare a state disaster. This occurred on February 1st.

That night, news hit that a few boats had hunted a whale. Kids would ask if we’d heard about the whale as they rushed to the coast. Our counterparts in Emergency Management and I huddled together until 5:00 AM with everyone from Savoonga telling stories as we watched trucks haul a 200-ft bowhead whale onto the beach. Where the storm brought loss, the whale brought hope, regaining of control, nourishment, and well-being.

Steven and FJV Sam Johnson (Anchorage, AK ’15-16)

For the next month after I left Savoonga, a team of volunteer caseworkers and me followed up with families to see how they were doing and where we could provide further assistance. The Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager kept in touch with the school to offer shelter training to both school staff and Savoonga residents in the coming months.

Since my time in Savoonga, new disasters emerged and different communities welcomed me throughout Alaska. A few months after the disaster, Alaska Dispatch published an article focused on Savoonga. This time it was not about a storm, but rather a community celebration: the anniversary of Savoonga’s first landed whale 45 years ago. I smiled seeing the photos of familiar faces singing, praying, and eating muktuk from bowhead whale. Missing everybody I had met, I gave thanks for everybody’s safety.

Red Cross JVs Deployed to Texas

As part of Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, Red Cross is sending volunteers from across the country to help in Texas. Two JV AmeriCorps members are some of those being deployed: Ella Keenan, serving in Anchorage, and Carly Jenkinson, serving in Juneau.

Ella and Carly are currently in Beaumont, Texas, 80 miles east of Houston, where they’ll be for two weeks. Their role is with the Mobile ERV (emergency response vehicles) as part of “search and feed” efforts. Here’s a short update from them.

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“We are assigned distinctive zones to serve: lower-income, displaced, and those who were most affected by flooding (many had at least around 5-10 feet of water that destroyed their homes). We bring them food, water, and supplies.

Many people share their stories of devastation with us, which makes our job very emotional, but extremely pivotal. Many live without food and electricity momentarily, some houses still under water. Water is not potable, as e.coli is a constant concern. As we drive down each road, the ones we can access, people are out working hard to get their houses back to livable conditions: the streets are lined with destroyed furniture, appliances, dry wall, insulation, and various cherished belongings. 17-18_JVsInService_Ella Keenan Carly Jenkinson Beaumont TX support flood

There is still so much need, and will be for months to come, and YOU can help! American Red Cross is always looking for more volunteers- please come join the team! We are here for you, Texas.” -Carly and Ella

Many organizations are in great need of volunteers and support; learn what you can do with the Corporation for National and Community Service on their Hurricane Harvey response page.

MLK Day of Service 2017

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To commemorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service 2017, AmeriCorps programs throughout the country participated in providing service in their communities. These are just a few of the stories of how our JV AmeriCorps members served!

JV AmeriCorps members located in Juneau walked from house to house installing smoke detectors and educating residents about house fires with the American Red Cross.

’16-17 JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau volunteering with the American Red Cross.

Alaska – JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau and Anchorage walked from house to house installing smoke detectors and educating residents on fire safety with the American Red Cross. Our Anchorage JV AmeriCorps members’ service activities were featured in the Alaska Dispatch News–  read the article here! In Bethel, JV AmeriCorps members hosted a showing of the documentary, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska. Additionally, members created an “I have a dream” board for interested parties to disclose their dreams.

Oregon – Woodburn JV AmeriCorps members Marit Olson, Jared Harris, and Emily Curran spent the day weatherizing homes through the Community Energy Project with Hands On Greater Portland. Meanwhile, in Hood River, residents were blasted with snowy winter weather, so in response to the weather, our Hood River JV AmeriCorps members teamed up with Providence Hospital’s Volunteers in Action to shovel care receivers driveways.

In Hood River, residents were blasted with snowy winter weather! Our JV AmeriCorps members located in Hood River teamed up with Providence Hospital’s Volunteers in Action to shovel care receivers driveways!

’16-17 Hood River JV AmeriCorps members shoveling care receivers’ driveways.

Washington  The JV AmeriCorps members in Grays Harbor carried on the tradition set by last year’s JV AmeriCorps members by picking up garbage throughout the Aberdeen and Hoquiam neighborhoods. In Tacoma, a few of our JV AmeriCorps members spent their time getting their hands dirty in the garden! Blair Bellis and Benjamin Feiten volunteered at Hilltop Urban Gardens where they composted, painted signs, and prepared the gardens for spring. At L’Arche Farms, Elizabeth Nawrocki recruited and coordinated volunteers for completing tasks throughout the farm.

Idaho – In the Boise community, JV AmeriCorps members Mariah Ertel, Mary Franz, Mary Haggerty, and AnnaMarie Marsilio spent MLK Day volunteering at Big Brother Big Sister of Southwest Idaho. Our members tackled various responsibilities assigned to them, such as organizing a storage facility, taking inventory, and reorganizing t-shirts.

According to Mary Haggerty, “Serving on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with my community knowing that so many other communities, not only in JVC Northwest but across the country, were serving others filled me with peace and hope. Hearing about and seeing so many people spread light made the ideal of a bright future tangible.”

Jared Harris, Emily Curran, and Marit Olson, spent the day weatherizing homes through the Community Energy Project with Hands On Great Portland.

’16-17 JV AmeriCorps members Jared Harris and Emily Curran weatherizing a home in Portland.

Montana – School was still in session in Hays, Montana, so our JV AmeriCorps members spent time educating their students on the history of Martin Luther King, Jr.. JV AmeriCorps members located in Missoula volunteered at the Poverello Center where they focused their day on homeless outreach.

Thank you to all who participated in MLK Day of Service 2017!

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World AIDS Day

JV AmeriCorps member Anthony Yakely (Anchorage, AK ’16-17) serves as the Client Services Specialist with Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association (Four A’s) in Anchorage, Alaska. To commemorate World AIDS Day, Anthony reflects on how his knowledge of HIV/AIDS has shifted from academic to interpersonal because of his experiences at Four A’s.

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Anchorage community in front of Mount Denali

Before this year, HIV/AIDS had always been presented to me in academic terms. My knowledge of it included words like “retrovirus,” “opportunistic infection,” and “cytomegalovirus.” After four years as a biochemistry major, I had learned a lot of the science behind HIV/AIDS. However, I did not yet know the human side of it having never personally known someone who is HIV-positive. Coming out of school, I was feeling burnt out and had a strong desire to serve in a hands-on role. When I was presented with the opportunity of serving my JV AmeriCorps year as the Client Services Specialist at Four A’s, I immediately jumped on the chance. This was what I was looking for.

I went into Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest wanting a sense of community and to have a chance to build relationships with all those I met. The first couple weeks were a whirlwind for me- meeting new faces and adjusting to a new service site in a new state on the other side of the country. However, after that initial adjustment, I began to build the relationships I craved. It started out small- sitting with clients at Friday lunches after I was done serving the meal and chatting about everything from family to living in Alaska. Little by little, I got to know the clients better.

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Halloween pumpkin carving client activity

With each Friday lunch and Thursday client event, I got to know those I was serving, the struggles they had faced, the addiction they had overcome and were currently battling, and the challenges and successes in everyday life. My favorite client activity so far has been pumpkin carving. By engaging with others in a holiday tradition that I love, I found the joy of just being, sitting, laughing, and sharing stories. My knowledge of HIV/AIDS had shifted from the academic to the interpersonal. It was an experiential learning- the concepts I had learned were being put into the faces of those I served through sharing meals, smiles, and arts and crafts. This disease described in almost mythical terms now had faces and stories that I had grown to treasure.

Unfortunately, the stigma for those living with HIV/AIDS still exists within our society. I have seen that the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS comes from a place of fear. Because some of the ways the disease can be transmitted are often taboo, it creates a negative attitude towards those who are HIV-positive. By putting a face to the disease, I have seen the problem of this attitude. I have met clients who care deeply for others, often going out of their way to help other clients who are not as fortunate. It is in this generosity and in my daily interactions with clients that challenge what society says about those who are HIV-positive.

world_logo1Today is World AIDS Day, and we will gather as a community to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Our entire staff will be holding a candlelight vigil to remember those who have died of HIV/AIDS, including some of our clients who passed away this year. Also, we will view the film “The Normal Heart,” which tells a tale of the early days of HIV/AIDS activism in New York City.  This reminds us that the fight against HIV/AIDS is still not over, even as treatment and research continue to improve. It reminds me of the faces of those I serve every day.

Becoming a Girl on the Run

For this month’s blog, JV AmeriCorps member Rachel Young (Juneau, AK ’14-15) shares her experience serving as Young Parent Healthy Teen Assistant at the Catholic Community Services of Juneau in Juneau, AK. Below, Young reminisces about coaching elementary school girls through Girls on the Run, a program that inspires girls to accept and love themselves using a curriculum that incorporates exercise and running.

“We are strong! We are smart! We are unique! We are beautiful!” I echoed these exclamations amidst the hundreds of elementary school girls decked out in face paint and homemade tutus and choked back my own tears of joy. Why was it that at 23, I was only just realizing these lessons for myself?

GOTRThere was a general sense of excitement and energy in the air as these amazing girls made their way to the starting line of their celebratory, season-ending 5K run. They had been working for this. They were ready for this.

It hadn’t all been easy. As a coach, I’d seen tears, anger, and sadness. I had mediated conflicts and misunderstandings and even had my own feelings hurt once or twice along the way. But that is what eventually made us a strong, resilient team- by learning to work together and love each other to overcome our obstacles. These girls learned about themselves and their team-mates this season. They transformed into strong-willed, confident, compassionate teammates. They learned how to work together, how to support each other, and how to treat themselves with care. Each practice, they shattered stereotypes about femininity and redefined what it means to be a girl of the 21st century.

One student stood up to the bully who had been teasing her in class. Another learned how to communicate her feelings with her dad. A third girl gained the confidence to mediate a disagreement between two of her friends. As these girls learned about themselves, they brought me with them on their journey. I remembered that I, myself, am powerful; my body is beautiful; and my future is limitless.

The morning of our 5K run, 150 vivacious girls left the starting line at Sandy Beach, and later, 150 triumphant girls crossed the finish line. Some ran, some walked, some hopped, and some even crawled like a cat on all fours. That day, there were no losers; only joyful, empowered, loving, and courageous girls.

After the event, we stopped for a team picture and the runners thanked me and my fellow coaches. I then thanked them right back. Thank you, girls, for showing me that it’s never too late to learn and grow and I’ll never be too old to be silly. I’ll always be a Girl on the Run.

Willing to Listen in Willow, AK

During the month of September, the Corporation for National and Community Service is spreading knowledge and awareness of disaster services. In honor of this month’s theme, JV AmeriCorps member Anna Nilles (Anchorage, AK ’14-15) shares her experience serving as Preparedness and Casework Specialist for the American Red Cross of Alaska. Below, Nilles describes her experience responding to a disaster in Willow, Alaska.

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An American Red Cross of Alaska volunteer looks at the after effects of the wildfire

My first large-scale disaster response happened near the end of my service year when wildfires broke out across the state. While listening to the stories of people displaced in Willow, Alaska, I came to understand resiliency and community in an entirely new way. The two are inextricably linked: people can survive on their own, but to thrive and to bounce back after a disaster requires the helping hands of neighbors. I had never seen people who were so resilient; who were smiling while they sifted through piles of ash they once called home, because they knew this would pass. They knew they were not alone.

Willow, AK is a place where people go to escape, to have space and solitude. Even the names of the streets where the fire raged – Serenity, Tranquility – reflect this desire. Forced out of their sanctuaries by the approaching fire, the people of Willow went above and beyond what they had to do to keep themselves safe. They gave generously of their time, resources, and services to others. The Red Cross collaborated with other agencies to support and facilitate this effort. Experienced volunteers from near and far teamed up with new local volunteers to train and mentor them. All worked tirelessly to do everything possible to shelter, feed, and assist those displaced by the fires.

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JV AmeriCorps members (Anchorage, AK ’14-15)

Equipped as I was to address only the immediate needs of residents, I offered water bottles, snacks, and time to listen to everyone’s stories. Only by listening could our organization become woven into the fabric of this community. I observed the powerful calming effect of patience and clear communication on people who were understandably frustrated.

Recovering from a natural disaster takes time, collaboration, and hard work. The Red Cross offers reassurance that the aftermath of a disaster is the start of a new normal and that no one has to rebuild alone.

Living with the Land and Building Community

JV AmeriCorps member Sarah Komisar serves at the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, Alaska. Below Komisar shares her experience teaching Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community through the processing of deer. 

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Miller explains how to process deer while respecting animals and native traditions. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

Living with the land and building community can be done in many ways. As a JV AmeriCorps member at The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), my placement included working with the Alaska Way of Life 4-H program. During January of 2015, SCS and Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) partnered to teach Sitka’s youth how to process one of Sitka’s local bounties: deer. The children from the 4-H program and SNEP Culture Class learned from Chuck Miller, SNEP Youth Program Coordinator, more than just how to butcher a deer as he removed the hide from the animal.

Miller shared with students the customary traditional practices of deer processing. Right away, Miller said, “It is important to not waste, and it is disrespectful to the animal to say ‘eww’ or ‘that’s gross’ because that animal gave up its life for you, so you can live.”

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Students learn how to wrap meat in freezer paper. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The children were certainly not squeamish. No ‘ew’s resounded from the audience of eager and fascinated onlookers. The first thing he pointed out was that the head of the deer was missing. Chuck explained that the brain of the deer could be mixed with urine and used to tan the hides long ago. The children learned that the hoofs could be boiled down and used for rattling sticks to dance with. The hide was removed carefully, and the kids discovered that it could be used for clothing or drums. The children eagerly peered over each other to get a look at the deer’s heart, liver, and stomach. Chuck explained that the tendons are so strong that they have been used for battle armor, dream catchers, and to latch many other things together.

The class also discussed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations and the importance of limitations on does for protecting fawns to conserve the population.

Miller shared with students how to respect the animal by properly processing the meat, as well as by not wasting parts of the deer. He then explained how respecting the animal transfers to respect for the community: the first deer of the year you get should never be kept to yourself.

“You give it away to somebody who is a widow, an elder, or both. You want to make sure you take care of people in the community who cannot hunt for themselves and our elders.” One of the boys in the group whispered to his friend, “I’ll give it to my grandma.”

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Deer processing complete! Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The class was able to see the deer processing steps all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper. The kids shared stories of their own deer hunting experiences and favorite recipes as they packaged the meat. Students were enthralled and walked away with both a practical understanding of the deer butchering process as well as a stronger respect for this treasured resource.

The Sitka Conservation Society looks forward to partnering with the Sitka Native Education Program in the future to teach Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community.