The Greatest Contribution

I have written about the Americorps National Service program in the past, (which you can read here) but at this moment in time, it’s pretty important that I add some context. 

I had previously pointed out how my term of service in Americorps helped mold my character and shape my future as a whole; that still holds true. It is because of my time spent in Americorps that I went on to choose my career path as a Wildland Firefighter. (A unique point about the Americorps program I served with is that it’s home to the Emergency Response Team (ERT), which is a disaster response crew). 

After finishing my term of service I ultimately ended up committing my life to public service and so did many other Americorps alumni who came before, and after me. When I say “many” what I mean is a whole, whole lot of us. I’d like you to remember this paragraph because we are going to revisit it later. 

The reason I was provided the opportunity to serve in Americorp’s St.Louis program is solely due to two people, Bruce and Kathleen, the founders of the program. Without them, the program which was incepted in 1994 simply wouldn’t exist.

The Oklahoma City bombing would become the first disaster out of hundreds (and possibly into the thousands now?) more to follow that the program would deploy to. Responding to the Oklahoma City bombing surely set the tone for the program. Bruce and Kathleen (the founders and co-directors and married couple) quickly understood how imperative it was to see the need and meet the need for people affected by tragedy. Without a moment’s pause, this Americorps program became their life’s work. 

Bruce in the Center

Their commitment to keep the program running would never be an easy one. Americorps funding always seemed to be in jeopardy and at the mercy of congress leaving Kathleen to take up the non-stop slog of finding grant money and/or community partners in order to keep things afloat. Meanwhile, Bruce spent year after year roaming around the country passionately engaging the Emergency Response Team (ERT) members into field operations at whichever disaster presented the greatest need. He’s slept in tents, on cots, and armory floors just like the ERT members he was leading, only to get up at first light and work tirelessly until sundown day after day. 

 

Something that amazes me about these two is no matter how dire things got; they were always able to maintain a sense of optimism and resilience. They didn’t get angry when the program was on the verge of closing yet again due to a lack of funding, they would just fight harder (and contribute their own paychecks if necessary). They didn’t get frustrated when another vehicle would break down on an assignment, they’d figure out who was the most mechanically inclined Americorps member and see if they could figure out how to limp it further down the road. 

The irony is that the Emergency Response Team was charged with responding to disasters but the Americorps program was sort of like managing an ongoing disaster in its endless unpredictability. I honestly don’t know where they mustered up the energy to fight the good fight for so-many-years but they did it wholeheartedly and they did it with a smile. 

Bruce and Kathleen were sort of like every Americorps member’s surrogate parents. They would beam with pride when they’d hear about what their alums were up to in the world and if two Americorps members ended up getting married or having a baby they would gush to no end about it. They truly want the best for every person they’ve ever met. They were equal parts quirky and caring; maybe 60/40 with quirky in the lead…

A few years back there was an Americorps reunion, which was great for all us alumni but I know that it felt like 500 Christmases rolled into one for those two, they were both exuding pure happiness as if they were empty nesters and all their kids had come home at once.

Bruce on the Far Right at the AmeriCorps Reunion

Obviously, their retirement would come someday but it felt like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I thought, “Who could possibly take this program over and run it with the same level of commitment?” but on the other hand, I wished they would have retired a decade ago because if anyone is deserving of some carefree years it’s certainly those two. 

The time finally came in 2019 when they both seemed to have retired fully, relinquishing the reigns of the St.Louis Americorps program to the next generation, bittersweet as I imagine it was for them. They retired to a historic farm in Oregon with plans to restore it and raise some animals while happily living out their days. It looked to be a great next chapter for Bruce and Kathleen then all hell broke loose. On September 8th a wildfire came to meet them at their doorstep. 

Having had plenty of experience with disasters -wildfire included- Bruce had a plan in place to deploy structure protection sprinklers and the like but the fire simply moved too fast. It was historically notable fire behavior, and that is never to anyone’s benefit. After working to free their animals they tried to escape the fire but found their escape route cut-off because trees had come down in the road due to the high winds that had accompanied the fire. 

Bruce and Kathleen managed to find an already burned field to drive into and await help. They both suffered burns and were taken to the burn center in Portland. Thankfully, both of their injuries appear to be recoverable, but their farm and many of their animals were not so lucky. This is where things stand as I write this. 

I have to tell you, when I heard the news about Bruce and Kathleen my heart sank in a way that I have never experienced. Bad things happen to good people all the time, that’s not new information. But this? Let me quickly recap for you…

Bruce and Kathleen started a program. A program that teaches people how to respond to disasters, which in turn helps thousands of people in their most helpless of moments. They dedicated their lives to instilling a sense of service in each and every Americorps member who passed through their program and they were extremely successful at it. They fought the good fight for 25 years, somehow keeping the funding going well enough to keep the lights on to continue serving the local community while meeting the national need in tandem. They finally retired after a lifetime of service and shortly thereafter their house burns to the ground (in a forest fire of all things!) and they are injured in the process. 

Remember that paragraph I wanted you to keep in mind above? This is the moment I want you to let all this sink in because at this very moment it is incredibly important. 

The reason my heart sank so low is that it’s almost unfathomable how much of an impact they have made. It’s because of these two people that thousands have been helped, and (at least) hundreds have chosen careers in public service, which in turn has undoubtedly helped thousands more people. Somewhere in there they also raised two sons who not surprisingly, grew up to be public servants. They did all this and they did it humbly. To me, this is the greatest contribution. Here’s my question: Where is their Presidential Medal of Freedom? No, seriously. Where is it?

The irony of their story is too “on the nose” and that’s how I ultimately figured out where the silver lining is. Bruce and Kathleen spent a lifetime seeing the need and meeting the need for perfect strangers in their worst and most vulnerable moments and now it is coming full circle. 

This is the rarest of opportunities for friends, family, Americorps family, fire family, and perfect strangers to rise to the occasion and help the helpers in their time of need. How often does that happen? Bruce and Kathleen have been stepping up and showing compassion through their actions for 25 years. Now it’s their turn to experience the other side of that. They get to know what it feels like for other people to see, and meet their needs. There is something pretty incredible about that.

The thing is, they aren’t asking for help. Of course, they aren’t asking for help… even in a moment when they’ve lost everything they still exude an enviable level of resilience. (They are just ecstatic to be alive) But the fact remains that their retirement was tied up in their farm, which has been reduced to ash, so I’m asking. I’m asking because I do not want for these two people to worry one single second that they may not be able to stay retired or feel concerned about medical bills.

Kathleen. Resilient as Always.

I am asking every person who is reading this that has the means, to please donate to the campaign which has been set up to help them rebuild their lives and then pass this along for someone else to read. Plenty of people have already contributed but as far as I’m concerned anything under one trillion dollars isn’t enough to repay their lifelong contribution.

If you’re willing and able you can contribute right here. 

If you’d like to learn more about the Americorps program that they founded you can click here. 

If nothing else, you just learned that one person (or in this case, two people) truly can make a difference. I was fortunate enough to learn it first hand at 18-years-old by watching Bruce and Kathleen lead by example.

Lastly, I’m very grateful for the time that you took out of your day to read this. Thank you. Now start clickin’ on those links!

The Greatest Contribution