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.