By: Michael Rojas
I had an idea of where I saw myself in the future. This idea always ended with me helping those in need. I had always envisioned myself as an educator and one year, I saw it come to fruition. I was fortunate enough to become a Special Education Art teacher in my home state of New York. I began to think of what this potential future might look like one day. I saw the extent of the impact I was able to make in a short time on my student’s lives and wanted to branch out to something on a larger scale. It became clear my path was leading me directly to disaster relief.
Having no previous related experience, I understood finding the right opportunity was crucial. Luckily, I found one of the most unique listings that stood out from the rest. Habitat for Humanity of Iowa had created the first Habitat Disaster Mobile Response Team in the country. The team is a statewide resource, currently responding to the July 19th Marshalltown tornado, headquartered in Marshalltown, IA. In April 2019, we kicked off our repair goals with the Blitz Build: Marshalltown Hammers Back! This Blitz was at the top of our most successful events in the state – especially in an area that is not currently served by a Habitat affiliate. We were able to touch 36 homes, engaging almost 600 volunteers over 5 days.
While we continue to work on homes here in Marshalltown, we also respond to disasters across Iowa and support rural housing builds in communities that need our assistance. Midway through my AmeriCorps term, the Mobile Response Team heeded the call to deploy to South West Iowa in July 2019 to provide flood recovery to Mills and Fremont counties. Going down to Southwest Iowa was a revelation to me. It was one of the most incredible experiences that I had ever been a part of. We were joined by two other AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams in the Washington Conservation Corps and an NCCC team. It was a seamless integration into one cohesive ADRT team that understood thoroughly the principles of what it meant to be an AmeriCorps. Due to our work ethic, tenacity, and general leadership we were able to make our way through our work at a tremendous rate. The days in which I was exhausted in the 113-degree heat, I was able to lean on my coworkers and teammates. I was able to put what we were doing into perspective as I talked to the survivors that were relieved to see a friendly face. It was truly a testament to our teamwork and flexibility that we were able to accomplish so much in such a short time.
During our time mucking and gutting in a town called Percival, we had been dubbed their “Angels” by the local community members. During their organized “Clean-Up” day we worked with community members and other locals that had driven in across the state to contribute to the effort. With our ADRT team, we made quick work of what was originally thought to be a two-day event. We finished half of the schedule before noon and then almost finished the full agenda before the end of the day. It was a grueling hot summer day and the elements were an issue. In my mind, however, I couldn’t fight the urge to completely give all the energy I had that day to the town of Percival. I felt as if it would have been a disservice to their community who had rallied so beautifully in a combined effort to restore themselves to a new normal. I spent my breaks chatting with the locals and town officials. They had commended me for my efforts but in my heart, I knew that I needed no affirmation. This was what I had signed up for and this was the job that I had grown to love so dearly. The companionship and comradery that we had grown on deployment is something that I found to be irreplaceable. We had forged everlasting bonds through service, and it is something that I am truly grateful for every day.
Having seen these affected areas and to know what these survivors have gone through stoked a flame in my heart to continue disaster relief work and to continue to provide whatever support I can give. I gained the utmost confidence in myself to know that I have to ability to help others in these conditions and create bonds of friendship within an affected community. Not only had our team grown in a professional capacity but we had grown as individuals as well. This was an experience that had been one of the most powerful catalysts for growth I had ever been a part of. It is an understatement to say that being able to help the people of Fremont and Mills counties had been one of the greatest highlights of my life and for that, I am truly thankful.