That was the slogan printed on a bookmark James Bell said he found in the library at the University of South Alabama. The slogan, advertising a new federal program called FEMA Corps, convinced the 19-year-old Saraland native to put his college career on hold and do something to help others.
“I researched the program and it was something that spoke to me,” Bell said. “It just seemed like this was what I wanted to do.”
Next week, Bell, alongside 236 other FEMA Corps members, will be part of the second group in as many months to graduate the program at the Center for Domestic Preparedness at McClellan. FEMA Corps, a collaborative effort between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and AmeriCorps, is designed to give members comprehensive skills to help relief efforts in nationally designated disaster areas. The new program was announced in March.
The classes train young volunteers to physically and psychologically handle the demands of working in hazardous areas.
Members of the program first take one-month courses either in Vinton, Iowa, or Vicksburg, Miss. — although training sites in Denver, Sacramento, Calif., and Maryland will be added to the program in the next six months — before finishing their instruction at the CDP in Anniston.
The program, which saw its first class of 462 members graduate from McClellan last month, was spearheaded by FEMA’s deputy administrator, Richard Serino. FEMA has two main goals for the program, Serino said. First, it aims to bring needed relief to disaster areas by equipping members to adequately handle a variety of hazards and situations. Volunteers through the program take classes that deal with teamwork and coping strategies as well as courses in mental and physical health.
The second goal is to find and recruit 18 to 24-year-olds interested in exploring careers in emergency preparedness.
“This program is truly giving young people an opportunity to be involved in disaster relief and to serve their country,” Serino said. “It also gives them the possibility to maybe explore a career in emergency management, whether that’s with FEMA or somewhere else.”
Members who apply for the program spend 10 months aiding in disaster relief efforts. FEMA pays for lodging and food, and upon successful completion of the program, offers $5,500 toward education for the members.
It is perhaps a small stipend, but, to most of the volunteers, the experience is what matters most.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself,” said Maya Jordan, 23, of Hampton, Va. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, Jordan said she quickly got sick of “corporate America” while working at a small boutique.
“You just can’t be afraid of the commitment,” Jordan said. “What you’re doing strengthens the lives of other people.”
Bell and Jordan both came to Anniston by way of Vinton, Iowa, but said they don’t know where their next stop will be after graduation. More than 200 members of the first graduating class are now helping Hurricane Isaac relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Bell admitted the psychological and physical strains of serving in disaster areas make him nervous, but said the training at the CDP helps him to focus on relying on teamwork to cope with the job.
“They really prepare you to deal with any situation,” Bell said. “You learn what you’re doing has a real impact, so you don’t get bogged down in the day-to-day details.”
Serino said FEMA’s goal is to have 1,600 members graduate the program by this time next year.
The exact timeline of when the next group of FEMA Corps members will come through Anniston hasn’t yet been determined, said Shannon Arledge, a public affairs specialist at the Center for Domestic Preparedness. Despite the expansion of the new program, Arledge said, the CDP will continue to remain the final training point for members before graduation and being deployed in disaster areas.
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.