Wis. woman spends year responding to emergencies

  • Article by: KALI THIEL
  • Associated Press
  • January 18, 2014 - 12:05 AM

SHEBOYGAN ,Wis. — About 2 ½ years ago, Kris Harmelink was on track to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

She had graduated from South High School as a valedictorian, received scholarships to attend the school and had gone so far as to complete the paperwork for her room and board assignment when she decided that heading to Madison wasn't the path she was meant to take.

"Suddenly I realized that I didn't want to do the four-year track," Harmelink said. "For some reason, I just realized that wasn't the route I wanted to go at that time and I didn't know what it was so I was just sort of panicking saying, 'What now?'"

Instead, Harmelink — now age 20 — took a year "off" and stayed home in Sheboygan. She earned her associate's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan and used that time to also figure out what her next step would be.

While researching some of her options online, she came across AmeriCorps NCCC, a full-time, residential, national service program in which thousands of young adults serve nationwide each year. She decided it was something she wanted to pursue.

"I've lived in Sheboygan for most of my life," Harmelink told Sheboygan Press Media (, "and I wanted some kind of in-between where I could say, 'I'm going to travel but I'm not going to travel alone and get stolen. I'm going to learn some life skills first.' And AmeriCorps was great for that."

Harmelink was given an opportunity to be part of a pilot program — a partnership between AmeriCorps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — meant to enhance the nation's disaster response and recovery capacity while expanding career opportunities for young people, ages 18 to 24.

She started the intensive national service program in February 2012 and graduated from the program in November.

During her time with FEMA Corps, Harmelink traveled from coast to coast in a 15-passenger van with about five teammates to participate in three one- to three-month disaster-relief projects in four different states.

Her team's first stop was in Queens, N.Y., to help with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Next, she went to Iowa to identify disaster recovery center locations on the eastern side of the state. Finally, she worked in a two-part project that had them start in Boston and then travel to Winchester, W.V., for some similar disaster preparedness work to what they completed in Iowa.

In between each project, the team drove in their van back to the FEMA Corps home base in Sacramento, Calif.

"Our longest drive was seven days to Boston," Harmelink said. "I learned how to drive a 15-passenger van on major highways and through terrible Boston traffic. ...Basic skills like that I picked up — which was great — which make me feel like a more competent adult."

Perhaps her most rewarding project was in Iowa where the team had to develop their own criteria for assessing disaster recovery areas.

They worked with county coordinators and looked for buildings, such as town halls, to use as shelters or operations centers in instances of flooding, and then created a report for the more than 100 locations they toured.

Throughout their time with the program, team members were given a weekly stipend for groceries, fuel and the like. But with the government shutdown, Harmelink said FEMA Corps couldn't guarantee when or if more funds would come through, and so they needed to conserve what they already had.

"For three or four weeks we were just in our hotels. We weren't allowed to drive anywhere but to work and the grocery store," Harmelink said. "People were so incredibly welcoming when that finally lifted though. They immediately were like, 'Well, let's go do this quick. And now that you can drive, we'll do this.'"

Harmelink said she felt her time with FEMA Corps — while not without its challenges — was a valuable experience for her for a number of reasons.

"It turned out to be much more on the professional side of things, almost like an internship," Harmelink said. "I still really enjoyed my experience but that's because I had a great team and I got to travel. It almost became like a family with my team."

Still, Harmelink said she walked away from the experience with a wealth of life experiences under her belt — experiences that she said she feels will help her tremendously in her future endeavors.

"I'm learning that employers love volunteer experiences," Harmelink said. "They love knowing that you're well-rounded. That's something great to talk about with them is, 'You can put me anywhere and I will be OK. I'll learn to deal with it.'"

She has yet to decide upon what her future career will look like exactly.

Currently, she's living in Sheboygan with her parents, pursuing her artistic interests and maintaining a part-time job. She's scheduled to travel to northern Kentucky where she has a work exchange opportunity lined up with some people who own a homestead and where she can learn more about farming and agriculture.

"I realized I'm the type of person who needs hands-on experiences," Harmelink said. "I'm going to keep exploring until something comes up and says, 'Listen! This is what you want to do.'"

"You were told 24-7 that you have to be 'FEMA flexible,'" Harmelink said. "I was really used to controlling my own life and so to just basically surrender your location, what you were doing with your time, who you were spending your time with — suddenly all of that is out of your control and you just have to keep going and trying to do your best every day."

The experience is not for everyone, she said. In fact, during her time in Queens, Harmelink said she at times became frustrated because the program wasn't what she was expecting initially.

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Sheboygan Press Media

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