Being a Bridge: Emma Boyd Leans Into Service For Her CityNov 01, 2022 08:20AM ● By Bridget Fogarty
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
As a fresh Westside High School graduate in the summer of 2017, Emma Boyd decided to embark on a road less traveled.
While some friends prepared for college, Boyd moved away from Omaha for the first time to volunteer with AmeriCorps NCCC, a full-time national service program where young adults live and work across the country in areas hit hard by natural disasters.
Boyd remembers sitting on a plane to Florida when a random passenger heard her cohort would be aiding in relief efforts almost six months after Hurricane Irma had hit the community.
“‘Oh, aren’t you kind of late to be going?’” Boyd recalled the passenger saying.
For the next six weeks, Boyd tarped roofs and gutted houses destroyed in the storm. She witnessed another complex aftermath when she extended her AmeriCorps term five weeks to work in Puerto Rico almost a year after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
“We get so looped on our news cycles that we think that disaster means once the water goes away, once the immediate damage is over, that people’s lives are back to normal,” Boyd said.
That time after the news cameras and journalists had left “threw her into understanding” the lasting impact disaster leaves on a community, even when the rest of the world moves on.
Boyd, now 23, graduated in May from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her bachelor’s degree in emergency management and disaster science. From May to October, she worked as an AmeriCorps member once again, this time as a shelter advocate and garden manager at New Visions Homeless Services—an outreach program that helps people experiencing housing and food insecurity in Council Bluffs and Omaha.
In Boyd’s time as an AmeriCorps member at New Visions, she’s taken the reins on growing the nonprofit’s typically volunteer-reliant garden, said Heather Beekhuizen, a community liaison at New Visions and Boyd’s supervisor. Boyd’s leadership and work brought forth a harvest of hundreds of pounds of food that was cooked into free meals for guests multiple times a week.
“She figures out what to do and does it,” Beekhuizen said. She saw how Boyd’s approachable and kind character helped guests feel more comfortable.
That’s Boyd’s favorite part of the job—building relationships with the guests at New Visions; typically men staying at the shelter or stopping in for a meal.
“The isolation that people experiencing homelessness have from our communities and society, in general, is really significant,” she said. “As individuals—and as a community—not engaging with the homeless population, we’re doing ourselves a disservice because we’re not only isolating them from us, we’re isolating ourselves from them.”
While studying at UNO, Boyd knew she’d learn about the disaster cycle: the phases of prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery that governments and civil societies rotate through when crises hit.
“But another part of it that I learned about was how general community resilience has such an influence on how communities and individuals rebound after disasters,” she said.
Boyd has discerned that Omaha is the place she needs to be right now.
“I’ve learned...we can help a community more when we’re familiar and we’ve been in it for most of our lives,” she said. “I’m trying to lean into that idea and see what that does.”
So far, it’s working out for her.
Boyd works full time as a youth programming coordinator at Countryside Church, the congregation she attended while growing up in central Omaha. In her role, she gets to help reshape and improve programming that was formative for her in high school.
She’s helped facilitate youth programs as safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ students involved in the church. She’s also thinking about how programs can be more intentional in engaging high schoolers who attend predominantly white schools and a primarily white church to serve Omaha’s diverse communities.
The lessons Boyd has learned and articulates so well—during her nights chatting with guests while watering the New Visions shelter garden, mornings gutting hurricane-torn houses, and afternoons spent with high schoolers at a central Omaha church group—suggest a maturity beyond her 23 years. How to best serve her community is a regular theme of conversation with her two roommates in the house they rent near the Joslyn Castle neighborhood.
“I’m like, ‘how can I do as much as possible at once, but also be aware that I can’t save the planet on a Tuesday?’” Boyd said with a laugh before pausing. “I like the idea that we as individuals can be that bridge for access to different things and access to different environments.”