JOPLIN, Mo. —
They come from near and far — but mostly far.
Just ask Allison “Ally” Borwell, who normally would be wearing a T-shirt and shorts in her sunny hometown of San Diego, Calif. Instead, she was wearing layers of clothing to shield her from the brisk wind that was blowing Monday across a farm field on the east edge of Joplin.
Borwell was wearing a green sweatshirt, which signaled that she was the leader of the AmeriCorps team that was picking up debris.
“We were cold at first, but once you get going, the layers start coming off,” she said.
The 10-member team was carrying pieces of a barn to a spot within a few feet of East 32nd Street where it eventually will be picked up by the city for disposal.
The team members were using pry bars and hammers to break the barn into smaller pieces. The boards are carried by hand or in a wheelbarrow to the pickup site. It’s tedious, time-consuming work.
SIDELIGHTS OF JOB
“But we keep finding things,” said Borwell. “We’ve found a microwave and a Christmas tree that were blown here by the tornado. At another place, we found some pictures that we were able to return to the family.”
Borwell is a member of one of two new AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps teams that arrived about two weeks ago in Joplin. They will spend a month contributing to the tornado recovery.
The teams are named Earth 3 and Earth 5. Earth 3 will be assisting the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team in its efforts across Joplin. Earth 5 will be helping Rebuild Joplin, a nonprofit organization that was founded in the immediate aftermath of the May 22 tornado.
For these young people, ages 20 to 24, it is their first experience with a disaster of catastrophic proportions. Having seen photos of what Joplin looked like in the immediate aftermath of the storm, they are impressed with the progress that has been made.
Arun Inbavazhvu, who is from Georgia, said: “I am impressed by how far they have come in such a short period of time. They have seen a lot of progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Bethany Mead, who hails from Texas, said she had seen some of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, “but this is even more shocking. All of the trees that are just not there anymore. How the tornado hit in one place but did not touch another. It’s really shocking.”
Katy Willis, of North Carolina, has been busy planting trees. She was planting a tree at one house when she encountered a lot of roots in the ground.
“I was told that this person’s whole backyard was filled with trees before the tornado,” she said. “That’s why there were so many roots.”
David Gassert, from Pennsylvania, said: “This whole thing is difficult for me to fathom. How it affected the people who live here. Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened where I live. It would be unimaginable.”
Willis said she has been struck by the friendliness of the people she has encountered. At one home, she was offered cookies. At another, it was apple cider and cake.
“Most of the people want to talk to us about what happened to them,” she said. “I really like that — being able to talk to the homeowners and hear their stories.”
Before coming to Joplin, the teams underwent training in Denver, where they learned cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid and how to drive 15-passenger vans, their primary mode of transportation.
They are staying in makeshift dormitories at Wildwood Baptist Church in Duquesne. They sleep on bunk beds that were made by high school students. They fix their own meals at the church.
AmeriCorps members are not volunteers. In exchange for their service, corps members receive $5,550 to help pay for college or to pay back existing student loans. Other benefits include a small living stipend, and room and board.
According to a 2007 study released by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a majority of AmeriCorps alumni within the study period said they had gained life and job skills, such as leadership, teamwork, time management, and hands-on experience in a field of interest.
The study also reported that 71 percent of alumni were attracted to join by the prospect of earning a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award; 41 percent of AmeriCorps members went on to receive a four-year college degree within three years of entering AmeriCorps.
So what has Inbavazhvu learned from his experience in Joplin?
“Take nothing for granted,” he said. “I hope I never experience something like this where your whole life is gone in one moment.”
For Mead, it was her impression of Joplin and the memorial service that was held last week.
“This community is tough,” she said. “You keep on going. This town is so giving, so involved. You could see that at the memorial service. The attitude is so joyful. What is the word I’m looking for? I think it’s ‘enduring.’”
Willis said: “I can’t wait to come back. I want to say, ‘I planted that tree.’”
MORE THAN 150 AmeriCorps NCCC members already have assisted in the relief effort this year in Joplin. More are to follow.