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AmeriCorps helps river town take a stand

A handful of AmeriCorps members is having an outsized impact on efforts to protect Clarksville, Mo., from the rising waters of the Mississippi River.'s Mike Stuckey has the story.
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CLARKSVILLE, Mo. — The next time you feel like kvetching about how the federal government wastes your tax dollars, think about Kyle Henning and Katie Rooney. For health insurance, a few hundred bucks a month, a small educational grant and all the ready-to-eat meals they can stomach, they just might save your town.

They are too modest to make any such claim themselves, but this hamlet’s epic battle against the surging Mississippi River would almost certainly not be going as well as it is were it not for Henning, 25, Rooney, 23, and a handful of their AmeriCorps teammates.

Last week, as soggy Midwest states to the north began sending their storm runoff south, threatening towns for hundreds of miles along the Mississippi, the AmericCorps team showed up to help Clarksville make its stand.

They quickly saw that they could best assist the town, with its unpaid mayor and council and tiny city staff, by coordinating volunteer and liaison efforts at City Hall.

“I think they are awesome,” said Clarksville Alderman Mike Russell, also the town’s emergency services manager. “I can literally tell you that if it was not for them running the City Hall end, we would be much worse off.” If parts of the town successfully fend off the record floodwaters expected by the weekend, it will be largely because of Rooney, Henning and their colleagues, he added.

Disaster is their specialty
Created by President Clinton in 1993, AmeriCorps is a national service program that puts its members to work on a variety of domestic issues, from literacy to the environment. Henning and Rooney are with a St. Louis-based unit that specializes in disaster response. They arrived in Clarksville fresh from helping clean up after a tornado in southwest Missouri.

Just two towns in Missouri — Canton is the other — were lucky enough to garner AmeriCorps assistance in this round of Mississippi River flooding, underscoring the fact that AmeriCorps remains small. With just 75,000 spots a year, it is not easy to join. Likely Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has called for the program to be more than tripled. His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, also advocates its expansion.

It’s hard to imagine better PR for upping the AmeriCorps ante than Rooney, a native of O’Fallon, Ill., who holds a psychology degree from Goucher College in Baltimore, and Henning, from Buffalo, N.Y., with a bachelor’s in music from SUNY-Fredonia.

Watching them operate in City Hall on Howard Street, you would think they had been doing this for a couple of decades instead of less than a year. As gasoline pumps whine and scores of inmates, soldiers and townsfolk fill the streets on their way to sandbagging stations, Rooney and Henning are the cool, calm center of Clarksville’s beehive of activity.

Sitting under tall, white walls adorned with an elegant wood-carving of the city seal and portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, they sign up volunteers, field all manner of telephone calls and quickly match aid to the ever-shifting landscape of need.

Top priority: Recruiting
“Water, water, water,” Rooney says to a mom and some kids who are signing up to shovel sand. “Hydrate yourselves all day. Take rests.” Then, phone pressed to her ear, she issues a quick aside to Alderman Russell — “I need to talk to you or the mayor as soon as possible about Porta-Potties” — and speaks briefly to a man who has stopped by to offer the services of his pickup truck and box trailer. In moments, he is assigned to help collect trash from food and drink consumed by volunteers.

How do they do it?

“This situation is easy,” says Henning, who is six feet tall, has broad shoulders, retro-cool sideburns and an industrial double-pierced post in his right ear. 

“This is a small town and our response is just this town. If I need something, I don’t have to make a call. I just turn left and Katie’s there,” Henning adds as he sits amid submersible pumps, bug spray, maps and laptops at his post in City Hall.

Their main goal is to recruit people and get them quickly and efficiently to where they are needed most. Another important duty is to log all the volunteer hours, which could help the city make its post-storm case for federal financial assistance, Henning says.

As to why he choose this career path, Henning says he had tried getting onto the corporate career ladder by joining a bank.

“It was horrible,” he says. But while Henning hated the work, he liked the people and wanted to help others.

The massive volunteer efforts in the wake of Katrina inspired him to find such a gig for himself and he signed up with AmeriCorps in September 2006. Last year, he reenlisted with the disaster team.

National service without firearms
“It’s been a lot of work. It’s been stressful,” Henning says. “I’ve gotten three or four hours of sleep each night for the past five weeks.” But, “the fact that I can serve my nation without shooting a gun is pretty exciting,” he adds.

Rooney, who is tall and blond and sports a string of hand-written phone numbers on her hand, says she believes national service programs don’t attract as many participants as they could because “some people just don’t know about the opportunity and how rewarding it is.”

Others are worried about getting started in the work world and “don’t realize the career advantages” of experiences like AmeriCorps, she adds.

“It makes you stand out from the crowd,” Rooney says. “You’re putting yourself in a position where you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re challenging yourself and showing a commitment to your community.”

With their current AmeriCorps contracts expiring in August, Henning and Rooney are not done serving.

Henning is in the final stages of enrolling with the Peace Corps, awaiting word on his assignment, which he hopes will be somewhere in Africa. Rooney is looking for a chance to work with disadvantaged young people in an outdoor setting.

Regardless of the good deal that taxpayers are getting, their biggest payoff is “when a person who has been directly affected by this comes up and tells me what a difference it has made, us being here, and knowing that’s true,” Rooney says.