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Lessons Learned: Q&A with AmeriCorps Alum and Joplin Veteran, Megan Helton

by Samantha Jo Warfield

To mark the one-year anniversary of the May 22 Joplin tornado, we'll be featuring a variety of content on the serve.gov blog, including Q&As with those who served in the community, like this one.

Question: What went through your mind when you first landed in Joplin?

Helton: I have never heard silence echo throughout a vehicle the way it did when we pulled into Joplin. On the way from Texas we went through two towns in Oklahoma that had suffered tornado damage, and I think we all thought we were prepared on some level for what we were going to see. But then we were there, looking out in all directions at impossible devastation. Even now, it's inexplicable.

Question: Tell us about the moment that touched you most.

Helton: One of the first days we were there, we drove around surveying the points of distribution, asking people their capacity to receive and distribute donations. There was this woman at her church who happened to be from my home state, Kentucky. We talked for a while about where she and her husband were during the tornado.

She then shared with me that the day after it happened she was driving to where her house used to be and got lost, lost after 20 years of living there. She couldn't find her street, her neighbors home, anything. There was something about that, her having lost everything, even her sense of place and in a way, her being, that almost haunted me. As street names were spray painted on pavement and things started to take shape again, I would always think about her.

Question: In what ways has National Service had the greatest impact in Joplin?

Helton: In many cases, I think just being present and listening had the most impact on the community. Our attitudes could shape a lot and you could see it as more people trusted us with assistance, and ultimately their properties, and how many return volunteers we generated.

Question: What convinced you to sign up for a second year of service

Helton: My time in Joplin was actually during my second [AmeriCorps] term. But my experience there led me to a similar operation in Texas in response to the central Texas wildfires in September of 2011. Since then, I have joined the staff of my former AmeriCorps program, American Youthworks Environmental Corps. I hope to grow our ability to serve Texas in times of disaster and I'd like to continue to engage young people in meaningful work. My experience has certainly convinced me to go a specific direction with my life.

Question: How have you changed? What skills have you gained since first arriving in Joplin after the storm?

Helton: To be totally honest, I hate public speaking but I had to do so much of it in Joplin, I've now (reluctantly) over my fear! I also feel more confident in my quick decision-making skills and in my ability to organize people in a way that benefits them as well as the goal at hand.

Question: What do you see yourself doing in 5 years? How has your service in Joplin influenced that vision?

Helton: I hate that question -- if I had been able to answer it five years ago, I probably wouldn't have been in Joplin!

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