Ray Bonner, an AmeriCorps member, organizes volunteers at a warehouse in Franklin Township, New Jersey, to assist with Superstorm Sandy relief. (Max Rivlin-Nadler)
Nearly one year ago, Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast. Within days, utility workers, police officers and volunteers swarmed the flooded and sand-strewn streets of the Rockaway Peninsula in southeastern Queens. At the base of one of the two clogged bridges leading to the Rockaways, a group of young people in bright-blue jackets emblazoned FEMA Corps unloaded a truck full of supplies, gave directions to victims looking for shelter and provided logistical support to the fledgling efforts of the federal relief apparatus. Those in FEMA Corps were among the first “boots on the ground” in what has been a $60 billion federal investment in Sandy recovery. Part of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), which in turn is part of AmeriCorps, the FEMA Corps members were representatives of a quiet move by the government to put young, quickly trained volunteers at the forefront of disaster relief.
As a member of an AmeriCorps NCCC team, Alex Slater, who was 19 when I spoke with him for this article, spent the better part of a year crisscrossing the country building houses, repairing parks and working with community groups. His team, designated Delta 7, was working with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans when Sandy hit the East Coast. Within hours, they were in their van headed north, without even knowing their exact destination. “Once we saw how bad the storm was going to be,” Slater says, “we knew we were probably going to be hitting the road.”
Slater’s team settled in at a Red Cross center in Franklin Township, New Jersey, where they managed the massive warehouse—filled with cleaning supplies, food and clothing purchased by the Red Cross and the federal government—and coordinated the delivery of goods to affected areas. The center was filled with volunteers, with just a few Red Cross staffers and AmeriCorps members to run the site. NCCC member Kimmy Mauldin, 24, scribbled a note and tacked it to a board that tracked outgoing deliveries to the New Jersey coast. “Post-it Notes helped save the Northeast,” she joked, rushing back to the computer console where she monitored the needs of other AmeriCorps-run relief centers.
AmeriCorps was founded twenty years ago, in 1993, after Congress passed the Bill Clinton–backed National and Community Service Trust Act, which established the Corporation for National and Community Service, a government organization that administers three AmeriCorps programs. Every year, AmeriCorps NCCC places 1,000 young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 in groups that travel the country providing service and disaster relief. AmeriCorps State and National allocates grants to states to fund nonprofits and government organizations that hire their own AmeriCorps members—70,000 in total—to do everything from tutoring to social work. VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), an AmeriCorps program with roots in the Kennedy administration, trains its 8,000 members to focus on capacity-building. A direct descendant of the New Deal, AmeriCorps has flourished despite ceaseless conservative attacks on the program and its funding.