Stephanie Jackson says she never thought she would need the disaster portion of her AmeriCorps leadership training. But since a tornado struck St. Louis five weeks ago, Jackson has been leading an AmeriCorps team involved in disaster relief.
“I thought none of this would ever happen to me,” Jackson said today as she managed relocation of the warehouse accepting donations for the Joplin, Mo., tornado victims.
Jackson and her 10-member team were redeployed to Joplin, Mo., on Monday after an EF-5 tornado there Sunday evening swept a mile wide swath of destruction six miles long through the center of the southwestern Missouri town.
“I knew I loved to serve,” Jackson said by cell phone, as she continued to direct the acceptance and delivery of mountains of donations. “Now I’ve found out what service is all about.”
Jackson and her team are part of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, based in Denver, Colo. But none of the team has been in Colorado for the last three months. They were deployed to Williamsburg, Mo., about 30 minutes east of Columbia, to help restore native plants and grasses to the prairie.
Then they were sent to St. Louis immediately after the tornado there, and redeployed to Joplin hours after the disaster there.
“We arrived in Joplin at 5:27 p.m. Monday,” Jackson said, without having to check any records to pinpoint the time. The normal five-hour drive from St. Louis had stretched into an eight-hour trip by violent storms that were in the area again on Monday.
Jackson’s team was the second AmeriCorps team to arrive: the St. Louis emergency response team was already there and by Thursday there were a total of four AmeriCorps teams in Joplin helping with disaster relief.
Search and recovery work is being done by “the professionals,” as Jackson described them, the fire and police search teams that have descended on Joplin. The AmeriCorps members have been assisting with the missing persons hotline and the donations warehouse, registering Joplin residents who need assistance, helping clear debris, working chainsaws and coordinating volunteers.
Sleeping in the gymnasium at nearby Southern Missouri State University, Jackson’s team has overseen moving the donations warehouse from the university to a larger warehouse near the airport. She said the donations have been organized like a grocery store, and that tornado victims simply come to the front of the warehouse, fill out a form saying what they need and AmeriCorps members and other volunteers assemble the goods, pack them in reusable shopping bags donated by Wal-Mart and deliver them to the victims.
Meantime, donations continue to arrive at the back of the warehouse, from which they are delivered to the appropriate areas to replace goods that have been handed out.
The AmeriCorps work goes on around the clock, Jackson said. And so far, the work assisting with the missing persons registry has been the toughest, not physically but psychologically.
“It’s hard for some of these young people who haven’t had much experience in life,” Jackson said. But, she said, the AmeriCorps members look out for one another.
Jackson, a graduate of Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., had been headed to law school when a mentor advised her to take a year or so and join AmeriCorps. Now, she hopes to stay in Joplin until shortly before the end of her current term, which ends July 29, and will serve another year with AmeriCorps before she goes to graduate school, perhaps at Yale to study linguistics.