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Willing to Listen in Willow, AK

During the month of September, the Corporation for National and Community Service is spreading knowledge and awareness of disaster services. In honor of this month’s theme, JV AmeriCorps member Anna Nilles (Anchorage, AK ’14-15) shares her experience serving as Preparedness and Casework Specialist for the American Red Cross of Alaska. Below, Nilles describes her experience responding to a disaster in Willow, Alaska.

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An American Red Cross of Alaska volunteer looks at the after effects of the wildfire

My first large-scale disaster response happened near the end of my service year when wildfires broke out across the state. While listening to the stories of people displaced in Willow, Alaska, I came to understand resiliency and community in an entirely new way. The two are inextricably linked: people can survive on their own, but to thrive and to bounce back after a disaster requires the helping hands of neighbors. I had never seen people who were so resilient; who were smiling while they sifted through piles of ash they once called home, because they knew this would pass. They knew they were not alone.

Willow, AK is a place where people go to escape, to have space and solitude. Even the names of the streets where the fire raged – Serenity, Tranquility – reflect this desire. Forced out of their sanctuaries by the approaching fire, the people of Willow went above and beyond what they had to do to keep themselves safe. They gave generously of their time, resources, and services to others. The Red Cross collaborated with other agencies to support and facilitate this effort. Experienced volunteers from near and far teamed up with new local volunteers to train and mentor them. All worked tirelessly to do everything possible to shelter, feed, and assist those displaced by the fires.

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JV AmeriCorps members (Anchorage, AK ’14-15)

Equipped as I was to address only the immediate needs of residents, I offered water bottles, snacks, and time to listen to everyone’s stories. Only by listening could our organization become woven into the fabric of this community. I observed the powerful calming effect of patience and clear communication on people who were understandably frustrated.

Recovering from a natural disaster takes time, collaboration, and hard work. The Red Cross offers reassurance that the aftermath of a disaster is the start of a new normal and that no one has to rebuild alone.

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Zayna Abusada (Ashland, MT ’17-18, Anchorage, AK ’18-19) was most recently a JV in south-central Alaska serving with immigrant and refugee English-Language learners as the Academy for Citizenship and Civics Support Specialist with the Alaska Literacy Program (ALP) in Anchorage. Zayna first served with Indigenous students on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations. Originally from Iowa City, Iowa, Zayna went on to earn her undergraduate degree in History and Theological Studies with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies at Saint Louis University.

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