I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Puerto Rico for my AmeriCorps service a month after Hurricane Maria. The storm left millions of people without basic electricity and hundreds of thousands without a home. Despite more than two months of emergency management and leadership training, I still wasn’t prepared for the devastation.
My team and I heard thousands of stories from hurricane survivors while helping them apply for federal assistance. But amidst the heartbreak, I saw hope and care for one another. I witnessed astounding strength, unity and resilience. Neighbors who had never introduced themselves to one another rescued each other. Hundreds of volunteers came to help, offering food and shelter.
After six months in Puerto Rico, I had a choice to make. My AmeriCorps service was ending, and I needed to decide quickly whether I wanted to stay in Puerto Rico and work for FEMA or return to the states. It was a compelling option because of the people I met — some of the most kind, welcoming and positive people, even in the face of extreme hardship. United Way brought me back. It’s the reason I opted to do a second year of service. United Way fights for the causes I believe in — to make life better for every person in every community.
This past year, I have served as a VISTA Leader at United Way Worldwide focusing on economic mobility. I support a national network of VISTAs who are building the capacity of financial programs, while also recruiting volunteers and raising funds for them. They fight poverty and give back to their communities and have collectively raised over $1.3 million dollars to support these programs.
Here are three examples of amazing AmeriCorps projects at United Ways:
1. Free Tax Prep AmeriCorps NCCC team Green 3 supports the United Way of the California Capital Region’s free tax prep program by working at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites. They help thousands of low-income people prepare their taxes and connect them to savings opportunities and public benefits. In just seven weeks, the AmeriCorps team has prepared nearly 500 tax returns totaling $950,000 in refunds. In addition, they have assisted 621 people with their returns, and guided 517 through the intake process.
2. United Against Opioid Abuse Dedicated to ending the cycle of overdose deaths in Indiana, AmeriCorps members are on the front lines in the battle against opioid abuse. Indiana United Way’s United Against Opioid Abuse Initiative is helping communities understand the issues facing addicts and their families, ensuring that community resources are effectively tackling those issues, and involving community groups and leaders to develop solutions.
3. STEM Corps STEM Corps members help enhance youth skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The STEM AmeriCorps program (STEM Corps) placed 20 AmeriCorps members in the 2018-19 service year at sites throughout Saginaw County, Michigan. In 2018, they served over 1000 students in Saginaw. Their goal is to make these subjects more appealing to area youth when deciding on a major in college or a career path.
This year during AmeriCorps Week, I am proud to honor my fellow members for the hard work and dedication that they bring to national service. My service has been some of the most difficult but rewarding time in my life. I chose to serve because I wanted to give back and serve others, and I am so glad I did.