How My Year In National Service Changed My Life

How My Year In National Service Changed My Life

My national service with FEMA Corps helped me realize the importance of being an active member in society.

Five feet.

I can never seem to remember how many ounces are in a cup or kilometers in a mile, but one measurement that I will never forget: five feet.

Five feet reached just below the windowsill on the house Jill spent everything on. Looking at the house you could see a debris line wrapping around the outside, five feet was how high the waterline reached.

Her second chance was underwater and after the flooding subsided she was left with repairs she could not afford and the potential for mold, which could mean medical expenses down the road. A few intact canned goods and McDonalds’ coupons were sustaining her family of five until they could get more money from Food Stamps the following month.

Though her name is fake, her struggle was real and commonplace with survivors in Louisiana this year. Parts of the Bayou State were underwater a great deal in 2016, as a result of two devastating floods. Though she is based on a woman born and raised in Louisiana, her story could have taken place in West Virginia after the flooding or in Florida after Hurricane Matthew.

I will never forget the massive debris piles lining the streets of, what looked like, any neighborhood in the United States.

I will never forget the face of men and women of all ages starving and desperate--the face of someone who lost everything or had nothing.

I will never forget the uncontrollable sobs from an elderly woman forced to start over.

I will never forget the joy on a man’s face who was offered hope, knowing that he could get money to start putting the pieces of his life back together.

I will never forget the seemingly therapeutic exhale of a young woman who was offered a second or third chance at life.

I will never forget the sound of gratitude from the voice of a 90-year-old woman whose house was gutted and cleared of everything that could have caused mold by a team of capable young people.

I experienced these things not because I am a survivor, but because I worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and FEMA partner in the 10-month FEMA Corps program. Just under 300, 18 to 24-year-old people travel cross country, to wherever they are needed to help those in need after a disaster strikes.

Community service may sound like a punishment to some, but to me it was a weight with which to balance the scales. I have been incredibly fortunate in my 23 years on this planet, in more ways than I can form words for. I felt as though it was my duty to disperse the good will I have been surrounded with. Call it spreading positive Karma, self-sacrifice, service to my country or a waste of time if you must, it was something that I needed to do.

My mother always told me to pay it forward (or was that Kevin Spacey?) An idea brought forth originally by Aristotle, the philosopher called it the Golden Mean.

The concept is that the energy you put out into the world, positive or negative, is what you expect to receive in return. My good fortune in life has been in large part cosmically random, as arguably random as a natural disaster striking.

While there are scientific reasons that some areas are prone to flooding and why hurricanes travel in certain paths, to the people that are affected, it is random. It is because of these random circumstances that create and alter the paths we choose and the lives we lead, that I felt compelled to help those in situations that could just as easily have been my own.

National service may sound intimidating, military even, but however you define it, at its core it is giving back to your country. I believe that it should be as respected in this country as military service.

My life was never on the line, I was safe from harm my entire 10-month term, but my sacrifice was still great. Leaving friends and family, having to coexist with nine strangers, sharing beds, living off a small stipend, receiving $4.75 per diem for food and never truly knowing if, when or where a new deployment would be issued.

For ten months I was military issue, wearing clunky black steel-toed boots and pants that are actually referred to as Battle Dress Uniform. I left everything that was comfortable, predictable and familiar to serve those in need. I left my life for ten months so that I could know what it is like helping people like Jill get back on their feet.

I am grateful for the opportunities FEMA Corps presented me with, but I am most appreciative of, and would recommend the program for, my new understanding of my place in this world.

The understanding that I am a part of this big, beautiful, scenic, scary and diverse melting pot of a country and to truly be a part of it, I must participate in it. It is my role to help make this country as great as so many say it is or can be.

Whether it is through serving breakfast to homeless people, providing love and attention to abused animals, Standing with Standing Rock or casting your vote on Voting Day, participation in all forms is what will make this country great.

Cover Image Credit: Hannah Sundell

Popular Right Now

No, I Don't Have To Tell You I'm Trans Before Dating You

Demanding trans people come out to potential partners is transphobic.

In 2014, Jennifer Laude, a 26-year-old Filipina woman, was brutally murdered after having sex with a U.S. marine. The marine in question, Joseph Scott Pemberton, strangled her until she was unconscious and then proceeded to drown her in a toilet bowl.

Understandably, this crime triggered a lot of outrage. But while some were outraged over the horrific nature of the crime, many others were outraged by a different detail in the story. That was because Jennifer Laude had done the unspeakable. She was a trans woman and had not disclosed that information before having sex with Pemberton. So in the minds of many cis people, her death was the price she paid for not disclosing her trans status. Here are some of the comments on CNN's Facebook page when the story broke.

As a trans person, I run into this attitude all the time. I constantly hear cis people raging about how a trans person is "lying" if they don't come out to a potential partner before dating them. Pemberton himself claimed that he felt like he was "raped" because Laude did not come out to him. Even cis people that fashion themselves as "allies" tend to feel similar.

Their argument is that they aren't not attracted to trans people, so they should have a right to know if a potential partner is trans before dating them. These people view transness as a mere physical quality that they just aren't attracted to.

The issue with this logic is that the person in question is obviously attracted to trans people, or else they wouldn't be worried about accidentally going out with one. So these people aren't attracted to trans people because of some physical quality, they aren't attracted to trans people because they are disgusted by the very idea of transness.

Disgust towards trans people is ingrained in all of us from a very early age. The gender binary forms the basis of European societies. It establishes that there are men and there are women, and each has a specific role. For the gender binary to have power, it has to be rigid and inflexible. Thus, from the day we are born, we are taught to believe in a very static and strict form of gender. We learn that if you have a penis, you are a man, and if you have a vagina, you are a woman. Trans people are walking refutations of this concept of gender. Our very existence threatens to undermine the gender binary itself. And for that, we are constantly demonized. For example, trans people, mainly women of color, continue to be slaughtered in droves for being trans.

The justification of transphobic oppression is often that transness is inherently disgusting. For example, the "trans panic" defense still exists to this day. This defense involves the defendant asking for a lesser sentence after killing a trans person because they contend that when they found out the victim was trans, they freaked out and couldn't control themselves. This defense is still legal in every state but California.

And our culture constantly reinforces the notion that transness is undesirable. For example, there is the common trope in fictional media in which a male protagonist is "tricked" into sleeping with a trans woman. The character's disgust after finding out is often used as a punchline.

Thus, not being attracted to trans people is deeply transphobic. The entire notion that someone isn't attracted to a group of very physically diverse group of people because they are trans is built on fear and disgust of trans people. None of this means it is transphobic to not be attracted to individual trans people. Nor is it transphobic to not be attracted to specific genitals. But it is transphobic to claim to not be attracted to all trans, people. For example, there is a difference between saying you won't go out with someone for having a penis and saying you won't go out with someone because they're trans.

So when a cis person argues that a trans person has an obligation to come out to someone before dating them, they are saying trans people have an obligation to accommodate their transphobia. Plus, claiming that trans people are obligated to come out reinforces the idea that not being attracted to trans people is reasonable. But as I've pointed out, not being attracted to trans people supports the idea that transness is disgusting which is the basis for transphobic oppression.

The one scenario in which I would say a trans person should disclose their trans status is if they are going to have sex with someone and are unsure if their partner is attracted to whatever genitals they may have. In that case, I think it's courteous for a trans person to come out to avoid any awkwardness during sex. But even then, a trans person isn't "lying" if they don't come out and their partner is certainly not being "raped."

It is easy to look at the story of Jennifer Laude and claim that her death was due to the actions of one bigot. But it's more complicated than that. Pemberton was the product of a society that told him that disgust towards trans people was reasonable and natural. So when he found out that he accidentally slept with a trans woman, he killed her.

Every single cis person that says that trans people have to come out because they aren't attracted to trans people feeds into the system that caused Jennifer Laude's death. And until those cis people acknowledge their complicity in that system, there will only be more like Jennifer Laude.

SEE ALSO: Yes, You Absolutely Need To Tell Someone You're Trans Before Dating

Cover Image Credit: Nats Getty / Instagram

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

I Joined A Gym And This Is What Happened

Three weeks ago I made the decision to take better care of myself, for better or for worse.


Three weeks ago I made the decision to take better care of myself, for better or for worse.

Like many people, I'm notoriously known for jumping on the health and weight loss bandwagon and sticking it out until it gets hard. It would last a few days to a few weeks but never really much more than that. My trips to the gym would dwindle into non-existence. Where was the accountability? What was keeping me going besides a shadow of my high school self?

It's a frustrating, endless cycle that ends only in depreciating my self-esteem.

Three weeks ago, that cycle stopped.

A friend of mine tagged me in a post promising custom meal plans, fun workouts, accountability, and best of all—results. To be honest, this initially sounded like another one of the thousands of gimmicks thrown at consumers every single day. However, my friend went to a consultation, and the more she told me, the more I became hooked.

The gym we joined is a small, family-owned business dedicated to helping people lead healthier, happier lives. They believe in building you up while teaching you to be healthier—in and out of the gym. The price tag almost scared me away, but part of their challenge is that if you reach the weight goal they give you, you either get your money back or can put it towards a gym membership after your six-week challenge.

After speaking with my family and friends, I decided this was the best decision for me right now, despite my current medical conditions. I was tired of the excuses and knew if I wanted results, obstacles would have to be worked around.

Week one was absolute hell.

Everyone was given a custom meal plan that, although straight and simple, is easy to stray from. The plan consists of several food options I would eat anyway when eating healthy, so that wasn't the difficult part. The hard part is everything not on the list. Week one shows you explicitly just how terribly you eat and drink. Week one reminds you of all those days you spent inside instead of exercising.

Week two was easier… and more satisfying. Cravings were still there, but they weren't as strong as the previous week. Even more rewarding, I had lost three pounds! My family could already see a difference in my body. I was performing exercises and eating foods I never expected myself to do or eat.

Week three was a giant curve ball I thought I had prepared for. My family went on a week-long vacation out of town, taking me away from the gym and the environment I had grown used to for this program. I decided I would continue to meal prep and utilize the at-home workouts the gym provided for us. I wanted to stay on top of the game. Things changed, however, when I got sick and was bedridden for the rest of the week. I couldn't eat, and I certainly couldn't move enough to work out. Whatever it was that hit me didn't leave for over a week.

I lost six pounds in four days, which wasn't the way I planned to lose that weight.

Going back to the gym this week was difficult. My morale was lower. Sure, I'd lost more weight, but it wasn't through the work I had signed up to do. I feared gaining it all back after being able to eat again. Working out is shaky at best due to being on a liquid and soup diet, but this time, I'm not giving up.

It's only week three, and I've seen more results in less than a month than I have in the last five years. I've never felt so empowered to treat myself well.

If anything, it's a lesson in challenging yourself. Don't hold yourself back; you may be surprised by the rewards.

Related Content

Facebook Comments