Leaving an island paradise of jaw-dropping beauty to enter a cauldron of fire. That’s how Lutherville resident Amy Singer describes flying out of Saipan, the largest island of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, to return home two weeks ago due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“In Saipan, I felt very safe and away from it all,” said Singer, noting there were no reported COVID-19 cases in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, during her time there. “But we’d been getting updates from [the United States] and heard about how life here was stopping here.”
For the past two years, Singer, 24, has served with AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps. A 2018 graduate of the University of Virginia, she had been working for two weeks in Saipan, serving as a field team leader for AmeriCorps’ FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Corps. The program was assisting with housing and construction projects related to the island’s devastation during 2018’s Super Typhoon Yutu.
Since returning home Mar. 20, Singer — who has never displayed any symptoms of COVID-19 — was self-quarantined at her family’s residence until Apr. 3, when she joined her parents, Karen and John Singer, for a Shabbat dinner.
During her self-quarantine, Singer’s parents put a mini-refrigerator and TV in her room – “I’ve been spoiled” — but always maintained a safe distance from their daughter.
“We haven’t hugged her or been face-to-face,” said Karen Singer, a Baltimore Hebrew congregant, a few hours before the end of the self-quarantine. “Thankfully, neither my husband nor I have any health conditions, but still Amy has been very cautious. She’s been a rock star throughout this whole process. She’s been extraordinarily good and careful.”
Earlier in her tenure with AmeriCorps, Amy Singer worked as a field team leader in California, Oregon, Washington and Texas, largely working on construction and environmental restoration projects in small and isolated communities.
“It hasn’t been that hard for her to be quarantined in some ways, because there were times [during her AmeriCorps service] when Amy only saw about two people for long periods of time,” Karen Singer said. “So she’s used to taking care of herself and being on her own. While in quarantine, she’s been able to reconnect with friends, AmeriCorps and pre-AmeriCorps. That’s been a silver lining, if there is one.”
Her daughter agreed and said she mainly spent the self-quarantine time cleaning her room, doing yoga, strength-training, binge-watching bad TV shows, journaling, exercising, practicing mindfulness techniques and communicating virtually with friends and family members.
“It’s actually been nice to decompress right now and have some time,” she said. “I’m used to being away and not with people in-person. At this point, it’s very easy for me. I think I’m ahead of the curve on this. Being home and in quarantine was easier than I expected. AmeriCorps prepared me for this. I’m just glad I feel good and am healthy.”
During her Saipan assignment — which originally was supposed to be for 10 weeks – Singer, who switched to the FEMA Corps track last July, was largely involved in the coordination of rebuilding homes and buildings.
“A lot of people there are still living in tents,” she said. “So we were doing a lot of case management, leading and organizing repairs with volunteer organizations. We were not rebuilding the homes but figuring out how FEMA could help, including clerical duties and delivering materials to homes.”
Singer said the island – which is now on lockdown because of the pandemic — experienced widespread destruction during the typhoon, but there are glimmers of hope. She recalled going out with a site inspector and talking to one family whose home was being rebuilt after they lived in tents for the past 17 months.
“They were clearly excited to go back home, and that was very rewarding and impactful,” Singer said. “There was such a dichotomy there of the beauty of the island but so much work to be done because there were signs of destruction everywhere you looked. But the people are so resilient and go on with their day-to-day lives.”
Shortly after arriving in Saipan, Singer said she and her team members received communications from family members and friends in the U.S. about the escalating COVID-19 situation here. As a result, she said she decided to fit in as much time as possible of seeing the island, aware that she and her team might be ordered to return home at any given moment.
“We basically had 10 days of normalcy there,” Singer said. “We made a bucket list of places to go – the public market, beaches, places to hike. I said yes to everything and did it all, including a half-marathon and a barbecue where I tried all of the island delicacies. I’m so grateful I took the time to pack in as much as I could. I tried to enjoy every minute there.”
Among the sightseeing pots she visited were “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff,” where more than 1,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their deaths at the end of World War II rather than be taken prisoner by American military forces. Singer also visited caves where Japanese soldiers hid from U.S. forces during and after the war, some of them never coming out.
“I’m so glad I went to Saipan because it’s really a fascinating place with a lot of history,” she said. “And it’s just gorgeous, with beautiful beaches and palm trees everywhere.”
After COVID-19 cases were reported in nearby Guam, Singer said she knew her time in Saipan would soon be over. After receiving news of a 60-day suspension of AmeriCorps programming, she and her team prepared for the long trip home.
It wound up taking 47 hours, including a 21-hour layover in Guam. Singer said she and her team remained at the airport during the layover, out of concern about Guam’s COVID-19 situation.
“It was what it was, so we made the best of it,” said Singer. “At least we were all happy and together. We knew there were things happening that were out of our control, so we tried to enjoy everything. We just felt bad we couldn’t spend more time together and we couldn’t stay [in Saipan] longer.”
Singer said she now strongly assumes that her AmeriCorps tenure -– which was due to end in May — is now over. Since being self-quarantined, she has tried to network and look for possible job opportunities. She has also worked on putting together presentations and information packets on AmeriCorps, which she hopes to offer someday to various groups and associations.
“I really want to pay it forward for AmeriCorps, so others can have the same kind of experiences that I’ve had,” she said.
As far as Saipan is concerned, Singer said she doubts she’ll return anytime soon. “I’d love to go back someday, but it’s very expensive to go there and very far,” she said. “It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m so glad I was able to go there and make a difference.”