When she was growing up in Ahwatukee and attending Desert Vista High School, Mackenzie Bower could not have imagined herself helping hurricane victims.
But that’s exactly what Bower, 25, has been doing lately, helping Houston victims of Hurricane Harvey who lost everything.
She is working at a conference center converted into a gigantic shelter and going door-to-door in a flooded neighborhood to check up on victims.
It’s all part of Bower’s 10-month stint in FEMA Corps, a government service program in which more than 1,000 young people fan out across the country and help people in need after natural disasters.
Bower said she wanted to help others and do something meaningful after she graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2016 with a master’s degree in sociology and took an unsatisfying job selling souvenirs at Disneyworld.
She likes helping people so much that she is considering a second stint in FEMA Corps, where she would serve as a team leader.
FEMA Corps divides members into teams based in various regions around the country. Bower’s team was based in Sacramento, California, but she already has been to New York, helping with relief efforts still underway from Hurricane Sandy, and Houston.
She knows she is only a phone call away from traveling with 14 other corps members in a van to another location where people are in need, such as Florida or even the U.S. Virgin Islands to help victims of Hurricane Irma.
It’s an unconventional life that many people might not enjoy, but it has helped Bower learn how to deal with people under stress and given her a glimpse of her life’s calling.
“I’ve always loved service. I wanted to do something where I was giving back and serving the community,’’ Bower said.
Bower said her first week in Houston was spent at the George Brown Convention Center, where 8,000 desperate people were staying in a makeshift shelter.
Some were homeless people who had lost their few belongings, while others had been evacuated during the storm and had no idea whether their home had been destroyed.
“It was my personal mission to get them as much assistance as possible,’’ Bower said. “I felt very honored to sit across from them. I would say yesterday was my most eye-opening day.’’
Bower’s next challenge was walking door-to-door through a waterlogged Houston neighborhood where she saw anywhere from five feet of flooding in homes to about 14 feet of flooding, with the flood waters leaving behind a water mark above the doors.
She said people’s belongings, such cherished personal mementos as family photographs, were strewn in piles of debris in the front yards.
But instead of feeling sorry for themselves, residents seemed upbeat, apparently realizing that at least they were alive, Bower said.
“It was really beautiful. They would say, ‘Other people had it worse,’’ she said. “They were unbelievably positive and in high spirits. They were happy to see us.’’
Bower said she has been moved by the generosity of people in the wake of the storm. She saw people bringing clothes, food and water to others they did not know.
The FEMA Corps team members are surveying the damage, signing victims up for disaster assistance and answering questions, such as how long it might take for a FEMA inspector to arrive.
Although Bower still does not know exactly what she wants to do the rest of her life, she knows that it must include helping others.
“I definitely think I have learned a lot. I have seen a great transformation in myself,’’ Bower said. “I definitely think the skills I have learned will help me in whatever I do in the future.’’
“I am definitely a people person,’’ she said. “I need to work with people and touch their lives in some way.’’
Neil Bower of Ahwatukee said he is very proud of his daughter and that the government service job has helped her mature into adulthood.
“I don’t think she has changed, but she has grown,’’ Neil Bower said. “She’s doing what she wanted to do. My wife Jeanne and I are very proud of her. She is helping other people.’’