A crew of weary AmeriCorps workers stationed in Sacramento returned Saturday after spending three weeks helping clean up the mess left behind by Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.
For most of the workers, it was their first major deployment in their 10 months of service after completing initial training at the AmeriCorps Pacific Region Campus at Sacramento's McClellan Field. It is one of only five such campuses in the nation and the only one on the West Coast.
"It was a wild way to start our year, and it definitely took a lot of strength from everyone that participated in it," said Melissa Ettman, 23, a team leader.
Ettman's hometown is Fayette, N.Y., near Ithaca, and she said she knows well many of the places hammered by Sandy. Her 87-year-old grandmother on Long Island had to live without electricity for a week.
"Seeing communities I've been through before in disarray it was very, very difficult and very sad," she said. "It was very hard to be there."
Ettman was part of a team that worked on mucking out and gutting homes damaged by floodwaters in New York's Rockaway community, which was hard-hit by a massive ocean storm surge. The team's own shelter at the end of each day was an unheated local church, where the crew initially slept on hard wooden pews until cots were provided.
"We would be mucking out houses all day, then come home to your cozy pew," she said.
The Sacramento group, which deployed Nov. 25, also worked to distribute emergency supplies and to staff an emergency call center that provided information to local residents seeking aid. Some needed help connecting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or finding emergency food supplies or long-term shelter.
"A lot of the time, it was just listening to people who needed to share their stories," said Emily DeLong, 23, a team leader from Fennville, Mich., who worked at the call center. "The majority of people said 'Thank you so much for listening.' "
Sara Diggs started her deployment by handing out emergency food at a stadium at Coney Island. Then she went door-to-door doing welfare checks on residents and distributing emergency supplies. Then she helped muck out damaged homes in the Rockaways.
"That was my favorite part because I got to really interact with the residents. It was lots of hugs and tears," said Diggs, 22, whose hometown is Vienna, Va. "Some of these houses had been picked up and moved across the street, like in the 'Wizard of Oz.' "
A total of 88 AmeriCorps members deployed to the area from Sacramento. On Saturday, 49 returned to Sacramento, and 39 more are due back Monday.
They are part of the National Civilian Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps program for people 18-24 years old that includes specialized training to conduct community service and disaster response services.
Compensation includes housing, meals and $200 every two weeks for living expenses. After 10 months of service, participants receive a college grant worth about $5,000.