Recent EMU graduate Kayla Potter responds to Joplin tornado as part of AmeriCorps team

Social work major draws on training, perspective she received at Eastern as she helps city cope with disaster

by Geoff Larcom, Published June 06, 2011

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The devastating tornado that hit the town of Joplin, Missouri on Sunday, May 22 was a quick call to action for Kayla Potter, a recent Eastern Michigan graduate serving with the AmeriCorps Emergency Response team in nearby St. Louis.

Potter and her team were deployed in response within three hours after the F5 twister ripped through Joplin. The experience - what she's seen and done since arriving on the scene - has left Potter grateful for the training and perspective she received at EMU.

"(The damage) is absolutely overwhelming," she wrote in e-mail after viewing the site. "The interior of the damage zone is utterly decimated. Thousands of homes are completely destroyed, and so many more suffer from both major and minor structural damage."

Potter arrived in Joplin at 6 a.m. May 23, and was immediately assigned to help develop the AmeriCorps volunteer reception center in the student center of Missouri Southern State University. Thus began several weeks of crucial internal work consisting of managing volunteers in various tasks and settings.

Potter helped process the massive influx of people wanting and needing to help any way they could. In less than 16 hours, her group collected more than 3000 volunteer intake forms, many of them from community members in the Joplin area.

By mid-Monday, May 23, Potter's group had gotten tech folks to set up a computer room dedicated to begin entering the intake forms into a database, with volunteers entering the information.

The next day, Potter was put in charge of developing and running the volunteer intake/donations call center with another team member, and did so through the rest of the week.

"In three days, we developed a base of dedicated volunteers, eager to return to the call center, talk with potential volunteers, and gather donation information," Potter wrote in an email. "They engage with callers in a positive, empathetic manner and do their best to help them help us. These volunteers have helped process thousands of calls and people wanting help."

When she finally got some time after those first, hectic days, Potter, a resident of Eaton Rapids, MI, who graduated in April 2010, communicated her gratitude to two of her EMU social work professors, Marti Bombyk and Elizabeth Schuster.

"I'm thanking you because without your classes and your willingness to work with and build a relationship with me as your student (for honors and thesis work), I feel I would not have been able to do what I'm doing," Potter wrote in an e-mail. "You two and the rest of the (social work) school have given me tools to help develop a culture of empathy, positivity and an eagerness to help volunteers within this small area.

"Because of this group culture, I believe we are doing the best we can to engage volunteers over the phone and leave them feeling like they could help in some way ... That would not have been possible without you."

Bombyk, who sponsored Potter's honors thesis on what it's like to live in poverty, was delighted but not surprised that Potter would communicate with her former professors.

"Kayla is a very enthusiastic and highly intelligent life-long learner," Bombyk said. "She radiates authenticity, positivity, and a deep compassion for humanity.

 "Few of us could have handled her responsibility in the face of such widespread devastation. Nothing about her amazing email that came to us in the wee hours was a bragfest. She was seeing herself among a network and legacy of social workers who dedicate themselves to this type of work, and she was honored to be sufficiently prepared to step up to her duty to serve."

Said Schuster: "Kayla is deeply committed to social justice, social change and, unlike many, she is ACTING on her convictions."

The next week, Potter began working on another project. Missouri Social Service's Family Support Division requested members and volunteers to help with crowd control and comfort during the 10 days they would be offering disaster food assistance, such as Food Stamps, on Missouri Southern State's campus. Potter was asked to help coordinate that service.

Her latest role is as the group's social networking person. She's been gathering articles and social media mentions about AmeriCorps' impact in Joplin, along with working on the organization's Facebook page.

 "These past few days have been incredibly intense, and I know it will continue to be so for a long time," Potter wrote during her first week in Joplin. "I've actually begun processing what we're doing here and helping with. I can't even begin to express how I'm feeling yet.

"However, my volunteers have left me feeling extremely appreciative of so many things. I've seen such an outpouring of love and goodwill towards this community."

After focusing on her assignments, Potter finally got to view the damage the night of June 3, when she went into the field with a scouting crew. The degree of damage astonished her; the community response continued to inspire her.

 "One of the only things I could think about was how much work still needs to be done, even after sending in thousands of volunteers to clear debris over the past couple of weeks," she said.

"It's like we've barely made a dent, even though over 50,000 volunteer hours have been logged through the volunteer reception center we've been running. Recovery is going to take years.

"I have, however, also been thoroughly awed by the community's resilience and the efforts of volunteers. There is more than destruction here. There is also heart, compassion, and hope."

Note: For more information about about AmeriCorps' Volunteer Reception Center operation in Joplin, check out the Joplin Tornado Relief Services page on Facebook.



Geoff Larcom


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