FEMA Corps inducts inaugural class

Erin Schoenbeck, 22, of Watertown, S.D., claps as she leaves the FEMA Corps induction ceremony at the Perryville Fire Department's Minker Hall.
Erin Schoenbeck, 22, of Watertown, S.D., claps as she leaves the FEMA Corps induction ceremony at the Perryville Fire Department's Minker Hall. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

Torrey Kurtzner sees the 10 months he signed up to spend at disaster sites across the United States as a springboard into adulthood.

The work could take him to the next Moore, Okla., devastated three months ago by a tornado, or the next New Jersey coastline, ravaged last year by Hurricane Sandy.


Kurtzner, 20, is one of 162 young people inducted last week into the federal government's newest service opportunity: the FEMA Corps, a partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and AmeriCorps.

With the new division, the Perry Point-based AmeriCorps is expanding its work beyond urban education and environmental cleanup.


Kurtzner, of Bennington, Vt., described the job as "really life-changing."

"To know that in this program, I can do even greater things for people and help them out even more than I have previously done is powerful," he said. "It moves you. It makes you feel like you have a purpose in life."

The Obama administration, which announced the creation of FEMA Corps in March 2012, says it will improve the federal government's ability to respond to natural disasters. Plans are to grow the corps to a full strength of 1,600 members by early next year.

FEMA has worked in the eight years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast to restore public confidence in its disaster response.

The federal response to Katrina drew broad criticism, and it has not been lost on the administration that the event was widely seen as a turning point in public perceptions of Obama's predecessor.

In the weeks after Katrina, the number of Americans who approved of President George W. Bush's job performance fell below 43 percent, according to averages maintained by Real Clear Politics, and never recovered.

Joseph Nimmich, FEMA's associate administrator for response and recovery, told the new FEMA Corps members that they had accepted an "extraordinary challenge" — and one that will require compassion, integrity and respect.

"You don't know where you'll be; you'll be transferred from one location to another," Nimmich said during the induction ceremony Tuesday in Perryville. "You'll be able to truly experience what it means to be dedicated to others, to put service above self."

Nimmich said FEMA would rely on the corps to help the agency become more innovative, harness the potential of new technology and focus more on the survivors, rather than the administration process.

"My challenge to you is, be creative," he said, "be assertive; when you see something you know you can make a difference on, speak up and let people know there's better ways of doing business.

"I have one question for all of you. Listen closely. Who's going to rock FEMA?"

The inductees responded in unison, "We are!"


"You are," Nimmich said. "Your predecessors have and you are."

While AmeriCorps members have been deployed in response to storms, floods, fires and earthquakes in the past, FEMA Corps will be its first group solely devoted to responding to disasters.

AmeriCorps director Kate Raftery called service in FEMA Corps an investment in the young people's future.

"You decided to invest this year in serving your country and serving individuals who have gone through life-changing experiences," Raftery told the inductees. "The skills and the knowledge that you will learn over the next 10 months, today, you won't even know what they are."

FEMA Corps is a division of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, part of the Corporation for National and Community Service. More than 5 million Americans serve their communities through the VISTA program, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund and other related programs

AmeriCorps members, who are between the ages of 18 and 24, receive a living allowance of $4,000 for the year they serve, in addition to housing, meals and medical benefits. They also may receive about $5,000 to help pay for college or satisfy outstanding student loans.

After the expenses are factored in, FEMA Corps is projected to save FEMA an average $60 million a year by improving cost-effectiveness, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The FEMA Corps members are assigned to one of five campuses, including Denver; Sacramento, Calif.; Vicksburg, Miss.; and Vinton, Iowa. The Maryland campus will move from Perry Point to Baltimore's Graceland Park neighborhood near Dundalk by the end of November.

The next stop for the Perry Point group is Anniston, Ala., where they will finish training before receiving their assignments, said LaQuine Roberson, director for the AmeriCorps Atlantic region. Their induction ceremony followed three weeks of training in Perry Point.

The group will return to Maryland between the 10-week deployments.

"We give them an opportunity to talk about the experiences that they've had in the field, maybe how the staff can help them do some things differently, or do it better and we provide more training," Roberson said.

Eric Butler, a 2012 graduate of Concord High School in New Castle, Del., said the job ahead would be daunting, but he's looking forward to the adventure.

"I want to travel and I want to help people, put smiles on people's faces in rough times," said Butler, 20, who had been studying special education at Wilmington University.

His mother, Erika Lamborn, said she is proud of her son.

"I told him, 'Go for it," Lamborn said. "I think it's going to be really good for him."


If you want to join

FEMA Corps members must be between the ages of 18 and 24. Applications are available at NationalService.gov.


Since 2000, the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps in Maryland has:

Contributed more than 500,000 hours of service

Provided $11.3 million worth of service

Recruited 7,600 volunteers

Assisted 510,000 people in disaster areas

Tutored 17,000 students

Planted 290,000 new trees, seedling and shrubs

Restored 30,300 acres of wildlife habitat

Source: AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps

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