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AmeriCorps: Preparing Communities for the Unexpected

by Samantha Jo Warfield

As a native of Long Island, the attacks of September 11th, 2001 hit close to home for Tracy Connelly. Loved ones working in the World Trade Center were missing. Family members responding to the attacks were injured. For 36 hours, she had no idea where her father was. Days after the events, Connelly learned of friends' deaths by passing their memorials in Penn Station.

On that day, Connelly bore witness to the many realities of a disaster. The government building she worked in was unprepared for such an event and total chaos ensued. With no way to communicate, the flight or fight mentality kicked in and coworkers fled the building.

And while Connelly's path had always been one of service, the events of 9/11 changed her focus, and ultimately the course of her career. After spending six months attending funerals, wakes, and memorial services – Connelly knew she needed a change. She set out to do something good with AmeriCorps.

After serving a year in Charleston, SC, with AmeriCorps NCCC, Connelly wanted to spend another year in service and joined the American Red Cross Readiness and Response Corps in Seattle, WA.

An Eye-Opening Moment

She credits AmeriCorps with opening her eyes to a host of causes, “I didn't have a master plan. I knew I was passionate about HIV testing and awareness, but AmeriCorps exposed me to a lot of race and social justice issues, education issues, the importance of preparedness, and the importance of being trained to do response,” said Connelly.

In Seattle, Connelly found herself working with underserved communities and finding ways to ensure disaster readiness and response information is accessible to all. She continued the same work after her term ended for two years, and was later hired by the City of Seattle to do the same job, which she continues today.

Much of this work, she says, is actually about people. “I must build a relationship and earn someone's trust before I can begin talking about emergency preparedness. I need to find out what their priorities are and connect with them through things that are important to them.”

From removing downed trees to doing case management, AmeriCorps serves a critical function in disaster response. Connelly noted that when doing disaster response after an EF-4 tornado as an AmeriCorps NCCC member, she was struck by the distinct role that AmeriCorps plays.

“AmeriCorps is in a unique position to not only do the ‘boots on the ground' manual labor but also the compassionate community work,” she said. “National Service participants are trained disaster respondents. They know what to do and can offer a helping hand. Thanks to AmeriCorps, hundreds of thousands of Americans who have the motivation and passion now also have the training and skill to help in a variety of ways.”

Ten years ago, Tracy Connelly was struck by the confusion and disorder that followed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Looking for a way to escape the sorrow that permeated the mood of the time, she joined AmeriCorps. Now, she works to prepare communities for the unexpected and is a living example of the spirit of unity and compassion that swept the country in the aftermath of the tragic events of that day.

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