The Austin Chronicle

'Nothing Is Done Alone'

American YouthWorks' Texas Conservation Corps helps bring Bastrop back to life

By Kate X Messer, November 29, 2013, News

When the Environmental Corps of American YouthWorks (since renamed Texas Conser­va­tion Corps) – made up of AmeriCorps members from around the country – arrived in Bastrop on Sept. 7, 2011, its first task was to establish a donation management and volunteer reception center. The pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, who had lost his home in the fire, offered his church as temporary reception center.

The Corps slept in Bastrop State Park, according to Megan Helton, field coordinator for the emergency response team with TxCC. "It was still smoldering out there. We had trees coming down at night and hotspots showing up around our bunks. We were in it."

And they were in deep. The group already had a relationship with the park; it's the site they use to train initiates on everything from proper chainsaw use and equipment care to basic conservation principles. "Bastrop is our neighbor, but they're also our home," says Parc Smith, CEO of American YouthWorks. "We bring our crews to Bastrop State Park every year to do trainings and ongoing project work. We're deeply embedded in the reforestation and recovery effort there."

In an ideal world, says Helton, when the Corps deploys in a post-disaster situation, "We have a local partner for long-term volunteer management. In this case we found Kate and Paige [see main story], who took volunteers for us into the field to work with homeowners and agencies. The two women had completely integrated into our operation."

Volunteer hours are an important part of the recovery process, with a significant monetary value, Helton further explains. Once an event is declared a national disaster "and public assistance is awarded, volunteer hours can reduce the local cost of recovery." The crew immediately began tracking volunteer hours all over Bastrop County. "We realized that neighbors were helping neighbors. People who hadn't lost their homes were spending days helping those who had. We needed some way to track those hours," she says. "In most disasters, FEMA covers 75 percent of the costs and the local jurisdiction 25 percent. Volunteer hours are counted as resources leveraged at $21 an hour per volunteer. If you generate $100,000 worth of volunteer hours, you don't have to pay that $100,000."

The Corps did much more than coordinate volunteers in the recovery effort. Since September 2011, TxCC and AmeriCorps teams have helped reopen Bastrop State Park, replant the area's beloved Lost Pines, enact erosion-control measures, and allocate resources to homeowners, among many other duties in partnership with nonprofits and the community.

"Nothing is done alone," Helton says. "That's the whole point of volunteerism. If you're a homeowner, watching your life get destroyed, and it's going to take you a year to clean up all the tiny pieces – when you have a community behind you, when you have relationships and partnerships, it can become a couple months. That's what's going on in Bastrop – community engagement, partnerships, people working together."

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