Eight of the American Red Cross volunteers currently working on American Samoa were supposed to be in training this week, learning how to become team leaders within the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), the 15-year-old national service program that puts young people to work in communities across the United States.
American Red Cross volunteers work with AmeriCorps to set up tents in a heavily damaged area of American Samoa.
American Red Cross/ AmeriCorps volunteer Ashley Saverino gives Sharon Sione, 5, a big hug beside the tent Saverino helped set up for the Sione family.
But when the tsunami struck American Samoa Sept. 29, the eight leaders-in-training traded classrooms and textbooks for an open-air shelter and hands-on experience packing clean-up kits and erecting tents for the families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the waves.
"The damage here is so prevalent," said Angela Young, of Georgetown, Texas, who was just starting her second year as a team leader with NCCC when she was sent to American Samoa as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. "We're putting up tents near the rubble of people's houses, but they always have a smile on their faces and they're so happy to see us."
The disaster relief work on American Samoa highlights the benefits of the partnership between the American Red Cross and the AmeriCorps NCCC program, which is open to men and women between 18 and 24 years old.
"Service is something I always wanted to be a part of," said Ashley Saverino, who completed one year as a Corps member and signed on for a second year as a team leader. "I went to nursing school and decided I didn't want to go into nursing immediately….To get to be one of the first responders—this is definitely the kind of work I want to do."
Local chapters of the American Red Cross serve as hosts of the five NCCC campuses, where members are assigned for the duration of their eight- to 10-month commitment to the Corps. The first weeks of training for NCCC members include training in the disaster services policies and procedures of the American Red Cross, after which the NCCC members are registered and eligible for deployment as full-fledged Red Cross volunteers through the host chapters.
Of the 21 NCCC workers currently with the American Red Cross on American Samoa, most are from the Sacramento campus, and eight are from the campus in Denver, including Young and Saverino. They arrived on the island early Saturday, local time, after a 5½-hour flight on a C-17 military aircraft from Hawaii, and immediately went to work with fellow Red Cross volunteers from the U.S. mainland and the Red Cross chapter on American Samoa.
"It's an invaluable resource," said Jonathan Comyn, Director of Emergency Services at the American Red Cross Mile High Chapter in Denver, who deployed the NCCC team from Denver after the tsunami. "It's one of the best partnerships we have, giving us a workforce of trained volunteers who are available at a moment's notice.
"It builds that relationship with young people," Comyn said. "Every year we're training 1,500 new youth in our programs—people who will become long-time volunteers or donors in the future."
Of the Denver NCCC volunteers, he said, "They thought they were here getting ready for leadership training, then we called."
When the call came about the tsunami, Saverino said, "I don't think anyone thought it was serious for 10-15 minutes….We were excited—and terrified." She and Young had worked on the disaster response to Hurricane Ike in September 2008 in Galveston, but they said the work in American Samoa has been different.
"I've never met people like this in my life," Saverino said. "They are incredible, welcoming. So many people have lost everything (but) people are so grateful that we're here. They've accepted us; we're family….
"We learned how to set up yurts. They are a very sturdy tent. We're showing families how to do it themselves. That's heavy-duty labor in the hot sun, and the families ask why we're working this hard. We tell them, we're used to working this hard."
The work stopped briefly Wednesday, when another tsunami advisory—then warning—sent residents and volunteers on American Samoa fleeing for the hills.
"We were out setting up yurts, and we see some people starting to run, and we heard a bell starting to ring," Young said. "We were 15 feet from the sea line, so we started running up the hill, but we heard it was a two-hour warning, so we went to the Red Cross shelter. Then it became a warning, so everybody got back on the buses and headed back up the hill."
The second tsunami alert was cancelled, and the AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers went back to work. Young, whose NCCC commitment will end in July 2010, said she is not done with her work.
"I want to be a Red Cross volunteer," she said. "No matter what else I'm doing, I want to work with the Red Cross and do these things on a regular basis."
Daniel Valle, of the American Red Cross Chapter of the Delmarva Peninsula in Maryland, who works with the NCCC campus in Perry Point, Md., said Young's attitude is what makes the AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers special to the American Red Cross.
"They're trained; they're ready; it's almost their job," Valle said. "They enjoy doing it. They almost have a predisposition to national service….These members will be the next generation of Red Cross leadership."
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation's blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.