CUMBERLAND — After trying a year of college, Mika Gallati opted to take an alternative path that took her far away from the classroom and comforts of home, and left an enduring impact on her life.
Through AmeriCorps, the young woman responded to disaster areas such as flooded Louisiana and North Carolina, and wildfire-torn Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
After graduating from Greely High School in 2015, Gallati studied chemistry at the University of Rhode Island. But after several months she realized that she didn’t exactly know what she wanted to do, she said in an interview June 21.
She wanted to take a gap year, but not do something that would drain a lot of money, and not just working a job at home.
Then she found out about the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps program, which sends people 18-24 to disaster-stricken communities around the country.
“I could travel, I could help America … and I could also get an educational award, which they award to you at the end of the program, which helps (financially) with college,” Gallati said.
Gallati and her team members had a month of training in Vicksburg, Mississippi, last August, and found the learning curve could be steep.
“You get a stipend of $150 every two weeks, which is less than minimum wage,” she said, “and you only get $4.75 a day for food.”
One could either spend that $4.75 on one meal, or the team could pool its resources to buy food for a week, Gallati said.
“It’s definitely a different lifestyle; you’re waking up whenever the sponsor tells you to wake up,” she explained, noting that she slept in places like churches and the back of a KFC parking lot.
There were certainly times Gallati wanted to go back to chemistry. Learning to work with a group of strangers for months presented occasional challenges.
Her teammates came from all over the country and from a variety of backgrounds, “and we’re all coming together, and we’re supposed to work together and work out differences,” she said. “Sometimes that can be difficult, but in all we were friends.”
Following her training, reality set in when Gallati and her team were deployed.
“Once you move out to rural South Carolina, you realize, ‘oh my gosh, this is actually happening,'” she said.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Lumberton, North Carolina, Gallati performed “mucking and gutting” of flooded homes.
“These homes were completely soaked from floor to ceiling,” she recalled, “and it was amazing to see people thank us for completely ripping out the drywall in their homes, taking out all the soggy furniture and putting it to the side of the road.”
The residents called her team a blessing, and Gallati was moved to see the homeowners, as well as other community members, lend the AmeriCorps members a hand.
“It was really great to see everyone pitch in and help people out that were devastated by those disasters,” she said.
Coming from a Maine town where, generally, the greatest impact from Mother Nature is a few feet of snow, Gallati found the relief effort to be an eye-opening experience.
Falling through rotted floors can do that to you.
“You couldn’t even stand on the floor boards; you had to stand on the joists,” she said.
Exposed nails, jutting out after floorboards were pulled up, were also something to watch out for. Despite being issued thick boots, “multiple times I would step on a nail and it would go through my boot; only one time did it actually go up into my foot,” Gallati said. “But we got tetanus shots at the beginning of the year, so it was fine.”
They were dangerous situations, but also thrilling, “because you know you’re still helping out,” she said. “… It was definitely fun, in a weird way.”
Gallati graduated from the AmeriCorps program in April. She plans to attend the University of Southern Maine for a semester and then transfer. She would like to follow a career in science, and is looking into nursing.
Asked whether she would ever go on a disaster-relief mission again, Gallati said, “If you’d asked me while I was in the program, I would have said, ‘nope, I’m one and done, I’m not going to do this again.'”
But in the time she’s been home, reflecting on the memories of helping people in communities that have been ripped apart, her feelings have changed. She said she’d probably do another AmeriCorps program someday.
The experience has “definitely … opened my eyes to disasters,” Gallati said. “I’ll never see a flood zone the same way again. It’s also opened my eyes to how great people are, because the organization that we worked for had so many people working for them. It was amazing to see all those people in that area helping out.”
Mika Gallati, left, took a year off from college to provide disaster relief through AmeriCorps. In Lumberton, North Carolina, she and two teammates posed in front of a pile of debris after “mucking and gutting” a home wrecked by Hurricane Matthew.