Since the end of July 2017, I have been enrolled in a program called FEMA Corps. In essence, FEMA Corps is a 10-month-long, team-based commitment to national service and the neighborhoods of America. For the last 7 months, my team and I have traveled all over the country, working side by side with FEMA and attempting to provide disaster aid and relief to the communities affected by Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria. The program is an intense journey into the inner workings of the government emergency management operations, and it gives it’s members a toolbox of different skills and experiences that can be carried with them into the professional world after graduation. That being said, however, the program is certainly not without challenges.
The Breakdown of AmeriCorps
The Corporation for National or Community Service (CNCS) is a governmentally funded agency that comprises of several different National Service programs. Each program, such as the Conservation Corps, AmeriCorps, or Senior Corps, has a different focus area and has multiple subsequent programs under their brand comprised of members of different age ranges. The National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), is one of these such agencies that fall under AmeriCorps. The two sub-branches of NCCC is FEMA Corps and Traditional. In the year 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency partnered with AmeriCorps NCCC to create a concentration that specifically matched youths with FEMA and their mission, and thus FEMA Corps was created. FEMA Corps is based on administrative, (in my opinion) grunt work, that supports FEMA in their mission and daily operations. Traditional Corps, conversely, focuses more on the down and dirty, hands-on volunteer work such as building fences and mucking and gutting homes.
So hypothetically, if CNCS was a university, AmeriCorps would be like a school within that university, NCCC would be a major, and FEMA Corps would be a concentration of that major. Confusing? Yes. But I have learned that government programs tend to be just that. It’s important to note that all of the following opinions and classifications are based solely on my experiences in the program. The other people in my unit and even my team may not agree with the following, but I can only speak for myself. Timing also played a huge part. Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria all hit at the same time right at the start of our program, and we spent the majority of our time in the response and recovery aspect of those storms. Had these storms not occurred, or had I had joined an alternate year, my experience would be considerably different.
Much of this list is a give and take, meaning there is a negative and a positive to each element of this program, but I will try to do my best to differentiate between the pseudo- positives and negatives. But without much ado, let’s break down FEMA Corps (literally).
Freedom and Choice
This is a huge point that I need to talk about with the program right off the batt. Freedom of choice, essentially, is not a thing in this program. For all extents and purposes throughout your very hefty 10-month commitment to this program, you are the pawn and at the behest of wherever FEMA needs you. They can tell you where to go, what to do, who to work with and how you can and can’t act. For example, while in uniform, you are not allowed to share or demonstrate any political opinions. It makes sense given that you are representing the government and a facade of professionalism, however, holding back your opinion about the current president in the face of Texas locals gets very tiring, very fast. Beyond FEMA however, there is the actual AmeriCorps program rules that dictate how many hours a week at a minimum you are required to work as well as an endless amount of team activities to do per week and PT at least three times a week for 45 minutes. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE PT. I will lace up and go for a run and lift with the best of them. However, many times, you don’t actually get to choose what you do for PT and it is left up to the team leader. So for that cherished 3 times a week that may serve as a stress relief and personal time, you’re essentially SOL (shit outta luck).
FEMA has this catchphrase, “FEMA Flexible.” What that really means is, they don’t have a plan, so when they figure it out, you better be ready to adapt to it. It’s the age-old military story when they say jump, you ask how high. I can’t count the numerous times when our task was twisted and roundabout but we still had to do it because it was what we were told to do. Read in between the lines. However, being able to adapt and carry on in an unlikely amount of scenarios is a helpful skill in life. Chances are, there are going to be curveballs in life and twists down the road, and being able to keep afloat during these times will only help. That being said, don’t question anything too hard or you’re going to be miserable.
In the past 7 months, I have traveled to 7 states (read about that here), not including the ones we had to drive through to get to our destinations. But those 7 places were locations I would never have ever been interested in going to before. What the hell is in Iowa anyway? But those travels made me realize that there is so much to see in just the United States alone, and so many distinctions from one area to another. Maybe, just maybe, the world isn’t so small after all. The downside to this, however, is that there is not much stability or security within the program. Within a days notice, your team could be notified to uproot and move across the country. More than once, we have not received information about where we were going, or even our lodging until days or even the day of. But that’s okay if you’re not too concerned with where you sleep at night.
I am absolutely blessed by the number of wonderful, compassionate and motivated people I have met throughout my time in this program. If I had to choose a top reason why all the bullshit was worth it, it would be the countless people that touched my soul. I will never forget the lessons that I have learned just by watching those around me react and act in stressful and disaster situations. I grew up believing in the DC Universe and Marvel, but these were real-life heroes, and I hope one day they will realize the great good they have done for me and countless others. That being said, there are bad ducks in every flock, and unfortunately, you can’t always pick who you work with.
Think about what you’re interested in long-term. Chances are, FEMA Corps will be able to give you real job experience to help you break in and promote yourself in that field. Because of how flexible the program is and how many resources at its expense, you have the opportunity to work in many different ‘cadres’ or areas, and in several different conditions. Over the past seven months, my team and I have worked directly with hurricane survivor victims to help them fill out and receive disaster assistance, in the planning and operations department working behind the scenes to obtain and delegate commodities and in a warehouse that has shipped materials and commodities out to the disaster areas. FEMA is multi-faceted and there is no end to the experiences that could be had in this program. Just a note though, just because FEMA may offer a specific program, doesn’t mean you will necessarily work with it or have access to shadowing someone. It all goes back to lack of freedom and choice. You can’t choose what you do. Your team is assigned a job to do once you arrive at a destination and to chance that task requires much communication with campus and a butt -load of paperwork. Always about the paper trail.
Tolerating others and understanding how their personality correlates to their actions is one of the biggest recurring challenges of FEMA Corps. From week one, you are faced with a plethora of rules and regulations in which you are now expected to conduct and mold your life. (Hello 10 pm Curfew) Not only that, but ‘you’ as an individual entity, are now merged into a group of people that, chances are, you would never choose to talk to, or even to be friends with. Everything becomes about the program, the team, and the “Ameri-bubble” that quickly becomes your life. Tolerance is key to not just stay out of trouble but to not be miserable. If you’re lucky, your group will hit it off from the start and it will be a wonderful 20 months of camaraderie. But from what I’ve heard, there are seldom no problems. It really comes down to luck of the draw.
AmeriCorps, as an agency, holds you to an incredibly high standard. While in the program, you are higher than yourself, and your actions 24/7 can and will come back to the program or even FEMA. In the first month of training at your home base campus, every member is told to maintain a friendly and caring disposition and to remain professional. By the end of the program, members are more confident in their abilities to speak succinctly to communicate their ideas, as well as maintain a positive outward image. However, let me reiterate, it is a 24/7 program. Meaning, even when you are not in uniform, you are expected to uphold that same standard as when you are at work, which makes it very hard to unwind at the end of a hard day.
Any well informed American knows, from watching the news or reading the paper, that the government SUCKS at keeping a balanced budget (and agreeing on one). However, just because we are a government program, does not mean we can play by those rules. Apparently, the White House has never gotten the ‘practice what you preach’ memo. But I digress. You learn to budget, and well, especially if you want to eat every day. The team you are a part of gets a certain lump sum of money per week for food that is calculated off of an infinite number of variables and laid out in detail in a 17-page booklet called statute 24. I’m kidding. But seriously, it breaks down to $4.50 a day per person for food.
This is the only bullet in here without a caveat. Every member that completes the program receives an ‘Education Award’ for a little over 5k to put towards any type of future schooling and/or current student loans. ‘Nuff said.
I was assigned to the Vinton, Iowa campus, and thank god I was. From day one, you could tell that the staff really did care about our future after the program and would take time to work with us on our individual needs. We even get two Life After Americorps (LAA) Days, that we get to take off of work to spend on future planning. Using these days, members can take college tours in the area, participate in graduate school interviews, or even just hang back to work on scholarship essays and applications. For me, I am interested in the possibility of joining the service, and after expressing that goal, I was notified that I would have the opportunity to take the ASVAB test on campus to see how I scored. Pretty cool that they offered that opportunity if you ask me. If I had to add another little nugget to this though, is that there are much more resources for the folks straight out of high school than those who had already graduated or had already done some college.
Individualism, or more accurately, the lack thereof, is a HUGE negative of this program. Day one you are put into a group of anywhere from 8-12 people and are then expected to do everything with those people. Everything from shopping, to eating, to working, and going out and everything in between happens with your team. Your success in the program really revolves around these other people as well. Any opportunity you receive very much has to be open to the entire team and even an outing to the store has to be a group event. Not only do you have to ask your team leader permission to take the team van, but two other people must accompany you at all times. It very quickly becomes less about you, and more about the team. You essentially become faceless and that’s a very bitter pill to swallow when they keep telling you that you are an individual.
Is It Worth It?
In the end, this program can be a great tool to gain life experience and set you up for the future. But that’s exactly what it is, a tool. Your own perspective and attitude towards it will either make or break your own experience. My 7 months so far has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, and I’ve struggled to always remain positive. More than once I’ve seriously considered throwing in the towel and walking away- and, conversely, there have been days that I marvel at how fortunate and blessed I am to be in my shoes. In the end, it comes down to the experiences. I have seen so many things that I never would have had the opportunity to experience outside of this program. I have the privilege of saying that I served on three major, national hurricanes. I have met incredible people, and heard even more incredible stories that now I am able to tell and share with others. So to answer the question, do I think the program is worth it? Yes. But there are also others that would tell you the complete opposite. AND THEN, there’s the nut jobs out there that have or want to do the program again for another term! (Now accepting prayers for their souls.) But I digress, if you are an 18-24 year old that doesn’t really know what they want from life yet, and you have an interest in travel and giving back to the country; you might want to consider AmeriCorps. Just know that you’re really going to need how to take the good with the bad and be “FEMA Flexible.”
As always, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about the program or my experience in it… Just holla @ me 🙂