February 29th, 2012 was a day of destruction in Southwest Missouri. Tornadoes ripped through the area leaving hundreds of families with severely damaged or destroyed homes. The AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team was called into action by the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) to provide volunteer management to both Stone and Taney county. Being a State resource for volunteer and donations management with in a disaster response, the Emergency Response Team quickly mobilized and had two separate Volunteer Reception Centers operational by the morning of March 1, 2012. Being the first disaster response for many of the Year 18 members, the Leap-Year Tornado has left an large imprint on their AmeriCorps service. As a Volunteer Coordinator in Stone County, Sara Levine,Yr 18 saw first hand the spirit of volunteers. "It was amazing for me to meet so many people willing to do whatever they can to help. It was even more amazing when people who were affected by the tornado still came in to help other people."
Steven Lawson, Yr 18, took the role of Homeowner Coordinator for the Stone County Tornado Response gaining a new set of skills and understandings about both disaster response and volunteer coordination. "We arrived, got some of our equipment moved into the vacant super market that would become our VRC, and very soon after volunteers starting pouring in looking for information on how to help and projects they could be sent out to. It was a hectic first few days, but we got set up and obtained more information about the area, the damage, the people, and the community in general things started going more smoothly. I have always been someone out in the field doing manual labor and have never had a job which involved any type of office work. So the forms and the processing of information was really interesting to see and learn about. Especially since I’ve been involved in volunteer work and never really knew how much it took to ensure that volunteers were properly coordinated to projects so the goal, in this case initial cleanup, could be reached. I was able to be there from the first day to the last day that the VRCwas open, so to see things from start to finish was also a unique experience. We definitely got a lot done and even as much as I had wanted to get out in the field every once in a while, I feel very grateful to be able to better understand this essential component of disaster response. After this experience in Kimberling City, I feel much more confident in my abilities to work efficiently and effectively as a part of a VRC team and without this program I do not believe I would have had the opportunity to do such meaningful work while learning and continually challenging myself."
Sam Zytka, Yr 18 describes working with a disaster affected family in Stone County, "Within two days we had fully restored hope to the elderly couple and made their situation much more bearable. As we were concluding the day and closing up the file on their house, the homeowner, with tears in her eyes, gave me a hug to thank me for all the work we had done. Easily the most rewarding experience I've had in AmeriCorps thus far."
Jena Hood, Yr 18 tells a story of a woman in her early 70's that survived the Branson Tornado while living in a Long Term Motel on the Branson Strip. "My first disaster with AmeriCorps was definitely an eye-opener for me. The resiliency that the community in Branson portrayed following the Leap Year tornado was extraordinary. The motel suffered irreparable damage and was deemed condemned. Residents were told they would not be allowed to return to gather their belongings because it would be too dangerous to allow people inside the structure. [The woman] however, did not heed the warning. She told the story of how she basically “snuck” into the motel in order to retrieve at least some of her more personal effects. Fortunately, she escaped unscathed. [Her] spirit never faltered, despite having had her home totally destroyed, losing many of her belongings, and being displaced for several days (she had to reside in an emergency shelter until she found an apartment). Words cannot express the energy and charisma that this woman portrayed. She truly represented the resiliency that the community as a whole exhibited after this disaster."
Stephanie Lee, Yr 18 , reflects on the big picture after the Leap- Year Tornado in Branson. "Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of the AmeriCorps lifestyle, you forget to look at the bigger picture--the reason you joined the program. With the nature of the program being so day-to-day, minute-by-minute, there isn't a lot of time for the events of each day to sink into your psyche. There are those events however that imprint on your mind and hold a forever place in your heart. The first day I was there I scouted homes that were damaged and talked with the homeowners about their needs. I also observed how the Volunteer Reception Center is run and how vital AmeriCorps St. Louis is to the disaster relief effort. I was so impressed with how competent our ERT team was in the Volunteer Reception Center and the Multi Agency Resource Center. It moved me to see such a combined and committed effort from my fellow team members, whom I've never had the opportunity of seeing in a disaster environment before. It made me so proud to be a part of such a vital disaster relief effort."