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Recovery Reflections

Post Date:01/23/2020 2:27 PM

Audrey Robeson served one year with Hawai‘i County's Kīlauea eruption recovery team through the AmeriCorps' Volunteers in Service to America program. Her work focused on community engagement. VISTA volunteers remain part of the recovery team through one-year terms.  

By Audrey Robeson 

This has been a year of learning. I started my year of service with AmeriCorps through the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program thinking I knew a lot. I’m ending it knowing that I don’t.

In many ways it’s been a hard year. I had the opportunity to speak with so many people who faced all kinds of challenges and incredibly difficult circumstances. I laughed with perfect strangers, I shared stories, and I listened as people told their own. There were plenty of jokes, tears, moments that caused me to pause; truths and wisdom, easily shared, that shaped and re-shaped the way I think of this island, of this work, and not to be too melodramatic, but of how I interact in and with the world.

Sometimes I’ve taken for granted how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to work at the Hawai‘i County Department of Research and Development, on the Recovery Team, and alongside this community. I’ve felt appreciated since the moment I came here, and have lucked out beyond measure for all of the opportunity and freedom to pursue ideas and projects.

When I started as a VISTA, I had just graduated with a master’s degree in urban planning. I graduated with a lot of debt, and a lot of academic knowledge. This year has taught me that there’s a different kind of learning to be done, away from the classroom – I think I might owe some tuition to Hawai‘i.

When I first moved to the island, I had spent a few months doing research on the impacts of Hurricane Harvey on a small neighborhood in Houston, Texas. During those months, I become immersed in recovery and disaster literature and the impacts disasters have on communities. This experience was useful in terms of a foundation of academic knowledge and best practices in disaster, but I quickly realized that Puna is a very different place and requires a tailored approach to recovery. I’ve been consistently grateful that the team of people who work on recovery are willing to take an approach to this process that lifts up all of the voices of the community and celebrates the unique resilience of this island.

I’ve written a quick list of a few things I’ve learned this year, in case others find it helpful, and to challenge myself to reflect on and continue to understand these lessons learned in my life moving forward:

  • You’re only a guest here for one day, after that, you get to work;
  • People who work in the County care deeply about this island and are working incredibly hard to do good by the people living here – sometimes that thoughtfulness takes time;
  • My assumptions should be challenged often and it will take work to acknowledge how these assumptions impact my way of thinking and actions;
  • Communities are not a “given,” they have to be built and maintained.
    • A note about this lesson: I grew up in a big city but a small community. I lived in a neighborhood with kids around the same age as me. For the 18 years I was there, I took for granted the effort and work it took to maintain those relationships, and the privilege which came from that way of life. It wasn’t until I moved to Hawai‘i that I was really able to grasp the amount of will and thoughtfulness that it takes to build community and maintain it as people come and go.

Since moving to the island, I’ve learned so much about what it means to build and maintain a community. Some of my impressions of the people here include: everyone is incredibly welcoming and considerate of each other. There’s a friendliness and openness to share that is a rarity. There’s also a strength to this place and people in that change and adaptability are built into the geology of the island and are reflected in the charisma of the people who live here. Nothing lasts forever, and many communities thrive in this willingness to change as the island itself changes. I’m grateful to have been taught this about Hawai‘i, as I feel many others can benefit from similar behaviors, especially in disaster-prone areas.

For future VISTA’s and anyone wondering what it’s like to be one – it is a challenge. We make small monthly stipends and it was difficult moving somewhere new and needing to catch up quickly with the events of the eruption, the culture of the island, the structure of the County, and how to navigate the dynamics of this place. I won’t say that I’m totally versed in all of these facets, but I’d say it’s worth the work.

One of the biggest takeaways from this year for me is that it’s not just about saying, “I’ve learned something,” it’s about making the changes in my life to show what I’ve learned through my actions. Some of those are easy. I’ve gotten really good at using Microsoft Publisher. Some aren’t so. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to find the best ways to live within and re-share these lessons. I’d like to say mahalo and a hui hou to everyone I’ve met, and plenty who I didn’t, for allowing me the chance to come here and learn from you.

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