They Called Us the ‘Green Shirts’: Disaster Response with Texas Conservation Corps

Article, written by Megan Helton, appears on the CNCS Blog.

We arrived in Bastrop, Texas, while the wildfire was still burning, the fire camp still buzzing. Fresh off two months in Joplin, MO, Texas Conservation Corps eagerly accepted the mission assignment to support volunteer and donations management. We slid into the chaos of the Emergency Operations Center, and put our heads down, getting to work organizing, outreaching, ordering all the offers of support that were coming in from throughout the country.

They called us “the green shirts.” We didn’t know that at first, but the name stuck and more and more people in the Disaster Recovery Center and in the County Judge’s chambers would reference it. So we started to speculate and think about the bigger picture.

We weren’t entirely aware of how we ended up in Bastrop County, and no one locally really had any clue who these AmeriCorps kids were and where we had come from. They just knew we were, almost against all odds, getting things done. They liked that – a lot.

2011 was a formative year for AmeriCorps and disaster response, and we walked away from our deployments with a new direction for Texas Conservation Corps. Building upon our experience in Bastrop, we formalized relationships with the Texas Division of Emergency Management and OneStar Foundation, our State Commission on Volunteerism. We added 30 AmeriCorps members to our portfolio, members who are recruited, trained, and on call for disaster deployments for the State of Texas and beyond.

Now, we work with our new partners to plan and create models of how to use a variety of National Service resources in Texas to address all four phases of disaster. We provide disaster training to other State AmeriCorps programs, we co-teach classes on Spontaneous Volunteer Management. We attend state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) meetings. Nationally, we are an active AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team (A-DRT) in the Disaster Services Unit program, and work to promote training and cross program relationships that unite us as A-DRTs.

In 2013, we deployed to the Oklahoma tornados alongside two other A-DRT teams; AmeriCorps St. Louis and Iowa Conservation Corps.  We had served with these programs during the Joplin response. While it was a difficult deployment (we had AmeriCorps members serving in five counties), the ease with which we became an AmeriCorps operation and not separate programs serving alongside one another spoke to the value of preexisting relationships during times of disaster. We saw the same thing when we deployed to the West, Texas, Fertilizer Plant Explosion, and were given increasingly important and sensitive tasks. Those at the top of the organizational chart already knew the capabilities of “the green shirts.”

Texas Conservation Corps AmeriCorps members change each year and often do not get to see the outcome of the kindness, compassion, and work ethic that they show communities after a disaster. But each incoming crew is aware of a legacy that they are asked to live up to, of a good faith foundation that built their AmeriCorps experience. It is this sense of whole community that strengthens our members into engaged citizens, and bolsters our country’s ability to recover.

Megan Helton is Field Coordinator for Texas Conservation Corps at American YouthWorks.