AmeriCorps assists with disaster readiness and wellness checks

AmeriCorps team is serving with Self Help Enterprises to provide disaster readiness, wellness checks to low-income residents

VISALIA – The San Joaquin Valley is largely insulated from the deadly disasters which plague other parts of the state and the country. Tornados rarely touch down, floods are a fleeting memory, earthquakes are distant rumblings and the only Hurricanes we know hail from the University of Miami. That is until California experienced the worst wildfire season in history this fall, including the Castle Fire which burned down 173 homes in the mountains east of Porterville.

If there was a time to think about disaster readiness in the Valley, it’s this year and it just so happens AmeriCorps has had a team here ready to help.

Elizabeth Voytko is one of six young adults from across the country who signed up with AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) to be deployed where they are needed most. Voytko is from Pennsylvania and has always been drawn to the adventure and selflessness of helping people during a disaster. She said she joined the ‘Corps to see new places, meet new people, but mostly to assist those in need.

“I enjoy helping people and doing the hard work that comes with getting your hands dirty, providing help to someone and getting things done,” Voytko said.

Voytko’s Silver Team 2 has been stationed in Tulare County since Sept. 11 as part of a project to assist Self Help Enterprises in going door-to-door during the pandemic to check in on low-income people who may be feeling isolated, overwhelmed or living in fear. Self Help Enterprises is a nationally recognized community development agency that works with low income families to build healthy homes and communities.

In addition to dropping off disaster readiness bags, the team is also participating in the Social Bridging Project. Announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom in April, the Social Bridging Project will mobilize more than 1,000 callers to proactively reach out to older Californians who are isolating at home. The project will combat social isolation through direct, one-on-one communication with older Californians, many living alone and isolated. Listos California is partnering with the California Department of Aging, United Airlines, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), and Sacramento State University to make calls to older Californians. Callers will check on the individual’s well-being, connect them to resources, and connect with them on a personal level.

“The pandemic has made it hard for many people to feel connected to their community, especially those at a higher risk of contracting COVID,” Voytko said.

As media relations representative for her team, Voytko said the group will hold its first outreach event this week. On Thursday, Oct. 15, the AmeriCorps team will host a Prepare and Prevent Event from 4-8 p.m. in the parking lot of the Tulare County Office of Education, 6200 S. Mooney Blvd. in Visalia. Voytko said her team will be handing out “go-bag” starter kits including a Disaster Readiness guide available in both English and Spanish, an important document holder, a flashlight and other items that will be distributed to assist people in preparing for a natural disaster.

“The bag itself is a great thing to keep in an easy place so you can grab it, put invaluable items in it, and get out quickly,” Voytko said. “Even with the pandemic, the wildfires are certainly on everyone’s mind when we are talking about disaster preparedness.”

Voytko said being in Tulare County has given her a whole new perspective on the vastness and diverse geography of California. Expecting sprawling metropolis’ from mountain to sea, Voytko said she had no idea how open the middle part of the state was. She said she is hoping to explore Sequoia National Park if the smoke from the fires clears before her team’s deployment ends the week of Thanksgiving.

“I had no idea how rural this part of the state was,” Voytko said. “I was also expecting warm weather, but not this warm. It’s been an eye-opening experience.”

AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) is a full-time, 10-month, residential, national service program in which 2,100 young adults—18 to 26 years old—serve nationwide each year. The Pacific Region campus is located in Sacramento, California, one of four regional campuses. The other campuses are in Vicksburg, Mississippi; Aurora, Colorado; and Vinton, Iowa.

In exchange for their service, members receive $6,195 to help pay for college or to pay back existing student loans. Other benefits include a small living allowance, room and board, leadership development, increased self-confidence and the knowledge that, through active citizenship, people can indeed make a difference. AmeriCorps NCCC is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service. For more information about the AmeriCorps NCCC program, visit the web site at www.americorps.gov/nccc.

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