For most people, the last place they’d want to be is in the southwest corner of Florida, just above the everglades—one of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Irma. But, for Sean McAleer, ’16, and his team of six, it’s right where they need to be. Their work involves assisting victims, who lost their homes and more due to this disaster.
Day after day, sometimes working 14 hours in a row for seven straight days, McAleer and his team of 15- to 24-year olds canvas the neighborhoods going door to door to make contact with hurricane victims to apply for aid. They are part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) mission.
“We are able to check on and explain the status of their application,” he said. “It really gives them a piece of mind that there are people out there who they can talk to. We can help to clarify things because a lot of it is confusing to them.”
McAleer always had a heart for public service. At Georgia College, he majored in history and minored in political science.
“Both of those fields have a strong emphasis on public service,” he said. “Whether it’s history—studying about those individuals who had made a difference in people’s lives by accomplishing something big, or political science, which showed how they did it.”
McAleer was interested in some type of government service to make a difference in people’s lives. After graduating from Georgia College in December, he started working with AmeriCorps as a team leader in January. McAleer says a core value he learned while at Georgia College was respect for others.
“When you’re working as a team leader you have to respect each other to be able to make it through the program,” said McAleer, who is also an alumni of the Honors Program. “It’s one thing to be around roommates and classmates in college. You might not get along, but you still have to respect them. AmeriCorps takes this concept to another level because you’re with these people all the time. I think GC’s emphasis on respect really set me up to establish that within my own team, and it paid off a lot.”
McAleer knows how to keep his spirits up even in the midst of tragedy.
“It can be a challenge working with people who have lost everything,” he said. “I think looking at the big picture is the most important thing you can do to keep your own mental health at a steady level.”
Many times, McAleer and his team run across victims, who are understandably emotional.
“We’re working with people who have just probably experienced the worst thing they will ever experience in their entire lives,” he said. “You can’t expect them not to take out some anger or sadness on you as a representative of everything that happened to them.”
The road toward helping people recover can be exhaustive.
“The idea that we are helping people gets us through the day even though sometimes it feels like the days will never end,” he said. “With our service ending in November, it helps us adopt the attitude that we’ll need to accomplish all we can before we head home. I think it helps my team to know that there’s an end date in sight. For many victims, there is no end date in sight because the survivors can’t go back to their homes.”
Although there is still a lot of work to be done in southwestern Florida, the team has less than one month left to go in AmeriCorps. McAleer mentions that being close to the end of the service term helps to keep people’s mind off being homesick. Instead, they continue to focus on helping people.
“At the end of the day, it’s rewarding to just feel like we’ve made a difference,” said McAleer. “Recently, my team and I went to a station recovery center at a middle school. When we walked into the room, the survivors all applauded. People can get upset with you can take out their anger and sadness on you, but the way they received us made a big difference and improved how we felt that day.”
Although McAleer and his team realize that they may not see the full effects of the work they’re doing in the community today, just knowing they’ve got these victims off on the right track makes all the difference to them.