Twenty-eight-year-old Joanna Glover, an Atlanta native, is a highly specialized, full-time disaster management volunteer who finds purpose in solving problems and being there during what are often the worst days of someone’s life. But that isn’t how it has always been. As a kid, she had her eye on becoming a veterinarian.
Joanna, pronounced jo-ah-na, got her name when her Jamaican father added some flair to her mother’s name choice. She is the oldest of 11 children, three of whom are biological siblings. Two joined the family when Joanna’s mom married their mother, her best friend of many years. And when Joanna was an early teen, the crew increased by six via adoption, eight if you count the dogs. They have always been a tight-knit family.
Volunteering was always part of their lives. Joanna remembers doing things like passing out turkeys and gifts for holidays very early on. Her experiences increased in size and complexity as she got older: helping out at a house for women and children leaving abusive relationships, becoming a STEM tutor for people of color and many more initiatives, particularly with children from under-resourced backgrounds.
“My mom often reminded us that even though we didn’t have a lot, this is how you can give back to your community,” she recalls. “It was just something that was pretty instilled in us.”
Joanna, the first in her family to go to college, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a minor in chemistry. She played competitive soccer and became a Zumba instructor, balancing study time with physical fitness. After graduation, she saw the opportunity to serve with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Core (AmeriCorps NCCC) and took it.
“That’s where I first got my exposure to nonprofits. I started as a team leader,” she adds.
AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteerism, provides opportunities for Americans to serve their country domestically, address the nation’s most pressing challenges, improve lives and communities and strengthen civic engagement. Each year, the agency places more than 200,000 AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers in intensive service roles and empowers millions more to serve as long-term, short-term or one-time volunteers.
With AmeriCorps NCCC, 18- to 24-year-old volunteers live and work together on projects around the country. Joanna led 8-11 Corps members on multiple service projects, including building houses after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas.
After her 11 months of service, Joanna earned a full ride for her master’s degree in education psychology with a focus on research, measurement and evaluation.
“I was the girl who was coding nice graphs of statistics behind psychology,” she says.
It was the beginning of her foray into data analytics. But upon finishing her second degree, she wasn’t ready to spend her days at a desk writing educational tests for profit, a path her background prepared her for. When her friend mentioned FEMA Corps, she jumped at the idea.
FEMA Corps, a partnership between AmeriCorps NCCC and FEMA, is a 12-month service-learning program for emergency management. It’s a full-time, live-in volunteer job with a stipend, and there are four rounds of projects.
Dr. Jarrad Plante, Wave Unit Leader with AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps Seven Campus and Joanna’s supervisor, considers it one of the most immersive service-learning opportunities someone can participate in.
“You’re working together. You’re traveling from place to place together in a 15-passenger van. You’re sleeping together, you’re cooking together, you’re doing physical fitness together, other service projects, other specialty roles together. I mean, you’re basically doing this almost 24/7,” he says. “It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that kind of program, and it takes a really special person to be able to lead. Now Jo’s done it multiple times.”
Joanna started out as a support team leader with operations. She was responsible for supporting her supervisor and making sure people had everything they needed to be successful when going out into the field.
In round two, she supported a team out of Oakland, California, archiving and sorting records and information to make sure everything went smoothly when people needed access. Then, she spent some time in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, where she began to focus on using data analytics to make dashboards.
“They’re much easier to look at than seeing a report every day that’s written about the people who have power, the percentage of water that is clean, the people who are still registering to get money from FEMA. Rather than reading those documents separately, what I did was give a nice pretty snapshot of a dashboard. And I would create it for different departments, so they could all see it,” she explains.
Now, she also oversees a team of people, making sure they have a project and are meeting goals, and offering general support and professional and personal development. She keeps things on track by staying in contact with a FEMA employee on each project on how to best engage.
“It’s kind of like being a supervisor but also a mentor for the AmeriCorps side; and for FEMA, it’s just being the extra hand or being an extra person to help alleviate all the work they have, especially when a disaster comes,” she summarizes.
Jarrad attributes Joanna’s success to her adaptability, her empathy and her experience.
“She has been in those members’ shoes before. She has gone through a lot of those trials and tribulations and has found ways to kind of become self-motivated in those circumstances,” he says. “She’s a rock star.”
As someone who sees learning as nonlinear and a lifelong interest, Joanna loves her work.
“Not only was I able to find my passion, I was able to utilize the skills that I gained in school and figure out how I could merge those two fields [math and educational psychology] to make my volunteer work more impactful,” she says. “When I do service work, that’s my way to become present. It grounds me. It slows me down. You learn hard skills and soft skills when you are out there doing service work.”
She finds it rewarding to be the person people depend on during difficult times, recalling her work in Puerto Rico, the people’s gratitude and even the opportunity to be an ear for venting during the aftermath of the disaster.
So, what’s next? Joanna will finish the program in March. She hopes to join FEMA in a role that uses data analysis to persuade decision-makers to send resources to the places that need it most. But for now, she’s focused on the role in front of her, identifying solutions and supporting her team.
“Did I ever think in my younger years that I would be trying to focus on using data analytics to help different communities? I would never have thought that. But doing service work first and figuring out how I could be more impactful, it led me down this path. And I have never been happier in life.”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Joanna? Find local volunteer opportunities.
This post was written by Kristin Park. Points of Light collaborates with voices from various writers to help tell inspirational stories of leadership, volunteerism and civic engagement. We recognize that there are many ways to be civically engaged, as outlined in the Points of Lights Civic Circle®, and we are grateful to our writers for helping us illustrate the impact of how everyday actions can change the world.