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.”

Welcome Americorps Member: Caitlin Schenck

By Caitlin Schenck, Americorps Member 

My name is Caitlin Schenck Caitlin Schenckand I am a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay where I completed two bachelor’s degrees in three years’ time.  I received a B.S. in Environmental Policy and Planning, a B.A. in Political Science and my minor was Public Administration.  As the mother of a toddler, I was unable to become as involved as I would have liked to be during years at UWGB, I was able to gain some amazing work and volunteer experiences when my schedule allowed me to do so.  The last nine months of my college career I interned with the blood services department of the American Red Cross.  When the opportunity presented itself to me, I was really excited because the Red Cross is an organization I have held near and dear to my heart for years.

Originally, I come from a small town near Wisconsin Dells, Reedsburg.  I graduated high school in 2006 and moved to Madison almost immediately after.  In 2008, what has been referred to as the 2008 Midwest Flood happened where several states including my hometown had a flood that almost bankrupted the town’s economy.  Many of my close friends lost their homes and were forced to rebuild.  The Red Cross was the first organization in town after the first responders.  All of the roads were closed for a few weeks and so much traffic was rerouted I couldn’t make it back right away to help, and to this day, I am so thankful those volunteers in the community were there to help all of my loved ones when I couldn’t.  So when I was given the opportunity to become a part of the Red Cross team here in Green Bay, and given opportunities to volunteer as well, I jumped on board and I can happily say they’ve gained a lifer out of me.

In my time as an intern, I enjoyed the work I was doing, helping out at blood drives, but the chapter end of the Red Cross and disaster services was something I was much more interested in.  Then, I got a tip from a friend that there was a part time AmeriCorps position open in Green Bay working in Disaster Preparedness.  I applied, interviewed, and have become a member with AmeriCorps.  Once again, I have the opportunity to work with the Red Cross in Disaster Preparedness and I could not be more excited for this amazing experience!  Now, I will be reaching out to community members and performing preparedness presentations, recruiting new volunteers, and assisting in the Red Cross’ Pillowcase Project which is geared toward 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.  I just cannot express how excited I am to watch this next year unfold and to be able to be a part of the Red Cross family once again, gain new experiences, spread the word of the importance of preparedness and hopefully make an impact in the process.

Get to Know: Paul Fruit, Regional Logistics Specialist

Kayleigh Kaminski and Kaylee Kuhn are seen handing over the greeting cards to Nick Cluppert (left) and Paul Fruit, from the Red Cross

Kayleigh Kaminski and Kaylee Kuhn are seen handing over the greeting cards to Nick Cluppert (left) and Paul Fruit, from the Red Cross

Hello everyone!  My name is Paul Fruit and I’m the Regional Logistics Specialist for the American Red Cross.  I’m excited to be able to share a little bit regarding my continuing career evolution within this remarkable organization and how I ended up in my current position, as it has been one amazing journey.

I grew up in a little town outside of Madison, and graduated from UW-Madison in 2009 with a degree in Economics.  Having absolutely no real idea as to where I wanted to begin my career, and willing to explore a wide range of options, I was particularly intrigued by an AmeriCorps service listing with the Red Cross in Oshkosh to help provide service and support to military members, their families, and the VA facilities that support them.  Knowing very little information about the Red Cross, I dove in headfirst and was quickly exposed to both the wide array of humanitarian services this organization provides, as well as the incredible volunteers that support them.  All I can say is that it was love at first sight!

My experiences as an AmeriCorps member were enough for me to know I wanted to stay with the Red Cross in any capacity I could, and when my two years were up, I accepted a position in Appleton working with a local community program and managing the local office.  I continued in this role for two more years before accepting my current position in disaster services, a position I very much enjoy.  I’m responsible for material resources and volunteers that support 28-counties including vehicles, shelter trailers and warehouses.

Each and every day, I wake up knowing that our organization has the most dedicated, intelligent, and caring volunteers on the planet, and I’m lucky enough to be able to work and engage with them on a daily basis as we continue our mission.  The last 4+ years have been the best years of my life, and I look forward to many more!