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AmeriCorps, still doing work in flood zone, facing Trump budget cut

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail
Lewisburg resident Arron Seams is one three AmeriCorps VISTA members working for long-term recovery committees in flood-affected counties. More than 300 service members supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service have assisted with flood recovery efforts since July, according to the CNCS. Under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, funding for the CNCS would be eliminated.

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Arron Seams was a manager for a Lewisburg bar last summer when the flood hit.

Seams’ Lewisburg home was spared from damage, but others in harder-hit areas like White Sulphur Springs and Rupert were not as lucky.

“Anyone that wasn’t affected personally knew someone who was,” Seams said. “And a lot of folks whose homes weren’t necessarily flooded, they still lost some income because their job or place of income was closed for a few weeks.”

Seams wanted to help, but he was recovering from a knee injury and wasn’t able to crawl under houses and do some of the other clean-out work needed at the time.

“I felt bad for not being able to help out more,” Seams said. “So I went to the volunteer reception areas that were set up by Volunteer West Virginia, and I started helping coordinate the spontaneous volunteers that were arriving by the bus loads.”

Seams started helping in his time off from Hill and Holler Pizza, and, in September, decided to make his service more official: He became an AmeriCorps VISTA member for the Greater Greenbrier Long-Term Recovery Committee.

Seams is just one of the more than 300 service members the Corporation for National and Community Service has dispatched to the area to help with flood relief and recovery since July.

President Donald Trump has proposed cutting funding to the CNCS, which oversees the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs.

In the aftermath of the flood, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members did damage assessments across the state, supported eight volunteer reception centers, removed debris and mucked out more than 60 homes, according to the CNCS. They also sorted more than 125 tons of donations and coordinated more than 1,050 volunteers.

Some of those AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members were reassigned temporarily from other assignments in the early days after the flood, said Heather Foster, executive director of Volunteer West Virginia.

Three AmeriCorps members are currently assigned to long-term recovery committees in flood-affected counties. Two serve in Greenbrier and one serves in Kanawha County, Foster said. Another is coming next month, she said.

Seams works at an office in St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in White Sulphur Springs. His counterpart, Krista Williams, works in an office at the Rainelle Town Hall.

Kayla McCoy, program coordinator for the committee, said Seams and Williams have been instrumental.

They work on volunteer coordination, capacity building for the committee and creating sustainable solutions, she said. By the end of their service, they will have developed guidebooks for officials to use should another emergency situation like the flood arise.

“When I say I have 38 volunteer teams and 798 volunteers coming, I can’t do that by myself — there’s no way,” McCoy said. “So [Americorps VISTA members] act as my liaisons between volunteer groups and local partners that can house them, that can feed them. They act as a centralized point for my construction coordinator.”

Seams said he isn’t sure what eliminating CNCS might mean for his position. His year of service ends Sept. 11.

“What I can say is that AmeriCorps programs that are administered and funded through CNCS have really been a huge help in this area, in this state, with flood recovery,” Seams said. “And I believe that CNCS and AmeriCorps are really important to communities in West Virginia.”

Service members are not limited to flood recovery efforts, though. According to the CNCS, more than 3,200 West Virginia residents serve with the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps program at more than 870 locations across the state. Their work includes tutoring and mentoring children, supporting veterans and military families, recruiting and managing volunteers, and responding to disasters.

Since 1994, more than 12,000 West Virginia residents have served as AmeriCorps members, the agency said.

AmeriCorps VISTA members live on a modest living stipend, which is about equal to the federal poverty line.

Seams said it’s challenging to live on the stipend. He’s living with his family in Lewisburg, which helps.

“With AmeriCorps programs, there is an emphasis on antipoverty and on community outreach and community development,” he said. “So I think the living stipend is an important [part] because it sort of teaches you a lot about the community that you’re serving.”

Foster said she’s not sure how long AmeriCorps members will work for the committees. It’s possible they’ll request help for a second year, she said. That will depend on if the program is defunded.

The summer, when more volunteer teams will be available, will be a good test for how much support is still needed and how much is available, she said.

“It really depends on where the local community is at,” she said. “I think two years is likely. My experience with disaster recovery is that it really takes a long time.”

Reach Lori Kersey at

lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1240 or follow

@LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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