By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – Among those helping during the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy have been the young members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s FEMA Corps.
While home for most of the corps, who are in their late teens and 20s, is as far as California and Washington State, all have come to the New Jersey/New York region to help.
“It’s an opportunity for kids my age to serve,” said Alexis Kapuscinski, a 19-year-old FEMA Corps member from New Hampshire.
FEMA Corps is an offshoot of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. The programs rely on volunteers, usually young adults, to offer their time, skills and abilities for community service projects for those in need. They are being housed in various extendedstay facilities and colleges.
A group of FEMA Corps members are working out of the makeshift FEMA headquarters in a large, vacant office complex that formerly housed the Avaya telecommunications firm, 307 Middletown-Lincroft Road, in the township’s Lincroft section.
The group is part of the FEMA Corps’ first class, coming to the area after being trained in Vinton, Iowa, according to Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA spokesman. The nearly 200 members working here are among the approximately 400 members who were dispatched to the New York/New Jersey region following Sandy, Bahamonde said.
A group of seven arrived Nov. 2 and is aiding FEMA staff with communications matters, distributing information and forms and performing community outreach, which included going door-to-door in stricken communities after the storm to offer assistance to those in need.
Max Rusek, 23, of Wisconsin, who graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, wasn’t sure about his future path after graduation. “I didn’t really know what my next step would be. I knew I wanted to contribute, to be of service.” That desire led him to apply to AmeriCorps and an offer to participate in FEMA’s branch.
Kapuscinski of New Hampshire graduated high school and wanted to give herself a year before going to college. She recalled Hurricane Irene and “what people went through” in 2011. “I thought this would be a really good opportunity before I went to college,” she said.
Rob Callori, 20, is a Middletown resident who had two years of college under his belt and decided he “wanted to take a break” from his academics.
Margarita Andryushchenko, 26, of Sacramento, Calif., is an accredited English teacher. “Before I settle down I wanted to come where people are in need and wanted to help out,” she said.
When they arrived in the area, Rusek said, their first assignment was to go to a town meeting in Highlands, a community that had been particularly hard hit by the storm. With power out and communications systems down, “people needed that information,” Rusek remembered.
Kapuscinski’s group was one of the first on the scene in Ocean County, where they went home-to-home looking for those in need. “There were a lot of questions we were able to answer pretty quickly,” she said.
One of the experiences that stands out most for Brendan O’Neill, 23, of Harrisburg, Pa., was when he was in Hoboken. People there were dealing with a ruptured tank that mixed oil with mud and water from the flooding, creating a smelly muck he helped people try to clean up. A woman showed O’Neill her small shop, ruined by flooding. “I remembered I cried that first weekend,” after seeing what people were going through, he said.
Emma Messinger, 18, lives on the eastern end of Washington State, and had never been to the shore and never witnessed any disasters of this magnitude. When they first drove through Sea Bright, she decided if she “wanted to look out the right side and see the ocean or look out the other way to see the wreckage,” she said.
“It was the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Middletown’s Callori, who hopes to lifeguard this summer in Sea Bright as he has done during past summers at local beach clubs, said, “I am going to remember the images I saw and the people I met.”
Among those images Callori recalls was when he was working in Ortley Beach with someone whose home’s first floor was completely flooded. While there, another man walked up the block and was distributing hot coffee to people. That man told Callori about the empty lot at the end of the block, where his home at been before Sandy. “I was thinking, there is this person giving out coffee when he didn’t have a home anymore.
“It made me proud to be from New Jersey,” he said.
What Cassie Murray, 23, from Maryland will remember is the strength that so many exhibited in the face of their loss. “It seemed everyone I talked to would show me the damage, but they would say, ‘We’re OK,’” Murray said. “People would say, ‘Everything I own is on the curb, but we’re all right.’
“I was really struck by the resilience people had.”
The FEMA Corps members said they expect to have lasting memories and friendships from their 10-month experience.
“When you join an organization like this, you give up a lot of what your life was like,” said Murray, who is a team leader. “I feel I gave up a lot in terms of my family and the comforts of home, but I got a lot in return.”
During their time with FEMA Corps, participants receive a modest stipend to cover personal expenses and upon completion they will get $5,500 for their education, FEMA spokesman John Tamariz said.