AmeriCorps Volunteers Answer the Call in Houston

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Story and Photo by Chris Genin, American Red Cross volunteer

From left to right: Jeremy Holm, Alex Unger, Juliana Stahle, Scott Sobocinski, Joshua Haisch, Emma Harvey

Unless you’ve resided or worked in an American Red Cross shelter, it’s difficult to get a sense of what goes on to ensure the comfort and safety of people who have come to the shelter for help. Volunteers work around the clock to maintain a positive environment and guarantee people’s needs are met. This is a huge job and the Red Cross often works with partner agencies in the shelter so that things run smoothly.

Alex Unger, an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Core (NCCC) team leader, is one such volunteer who represents a partner agency and is working side-by-side with Red Cross volunteers to efficiently run one of the remaining Red Cross shelters at Houston’s Greenspoint Mall.

AmeriCorps is a team-based national community service program run by the federal government and Alex and his team operate under the NCCC. Teams are usually comprised of eight to 12 people who travel around the country building homes, responding to disasters, working with kids and performing energy and environmental conservation work. They operate under 10-month commitments and typically focus on one region unless a disaster strikes. The AmeriCorps campus in Baltimore sent 12 teams to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Prior to deploying to Houston, Alex’s team was in Idaho aiding relief efforts during the Hanover Wildfire.

Alex’s team of 11 AmeriCorps members helped spearhead the shelter set up and had the big task of unloading and organizing 16 trucks packed full of resident’s’ personal belongs. Most Greenspoint Mall residents moved there from another shelter and a system had to be implemented to make sure personal belongings went with them. Alex’s team sorted totes and boxes and created a system for where their belongings went.

Nearly 500 people descended on the shelter, some traveling with 10 massive boxes and others bringing one small tote, Alex’s team organized these things in an orderly manner, while at the same time remaining readily available to help in other areas. No matter the quantity of what came with a resident, Alex handled all belongings with care, keeping in mind that what they were unloading could be all the material things that remained for some people.

Thirteen AmeriCorps team members are still supporting Red Cross shelter operations. These volunteers help manage laundry service, sorting and distributing donated items, serving meals, unloading deliveries and maintaining general cleanliness. All of this is done in support of the 400 residents who call this shelter home nearly seven weeks after Hurricane Harvey.

Alex, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin, joined AmeriCorps because he wanted to experience this unique way of life and to develop his leadership ability. He and his team are going to continue their work in Houston until they graduate their service year on November 15.

A lot of the people are really appreciative of the work that we’re doing here,” Alex said. “Whether it’s serving meals or passing out clothes, a lot of people basically have nothing. It’s humbling to be a part of it all, to sit with someone and hear their story. It’s great to see people getting back on their feet.”

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