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The Right—And Wrong—Ways to Help

Connila Gillette was surfing the Internet in her ground-floor apartment on May 22 in Joplin, Mo., when she heard a banging on her door. She opened the door to a panicked neighbor from upstairs telling her a tornado was bearing down on their complex. The two of them—and his 10-year-old son—rushed into an interior bathroom and hid in the bathtub.

“Within seconds everything was gone,” she says. “All that was left was the bathtub and about a foot of tile. But none of us had a scratch.”

Others were not as fortunate. More than 150 were killed and hundreds more injured by the tornado that tore a mile-wide swath through a residential area. Like many of her neighbors, Gillette was left with nothing. She found herself completely dependent on outside help to survive. But getting her and others the right help at the right time is not a simple thing and is the domain of disaster relief organizations such as Convoy of Hope, Inc., which responded immediately to the crisis.

As the media converged on Joplin, the nation responded generously. Monetary aid, emergency relief supplies and would-be volunteers flowed into this city of 50,000 residents. The groundswell of support was typical of America’s response to disasters—Americans donated $3.3 billion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and $1.4 billion after Haiti’s earthquake in 2010.

Though initial reaction is important during such crises, response time to natural disasters actually extends beyond the initial disaster for many months.

“There’s a formula that says if there’s three days of rescue, there’s 30 days of response and 300 days of recovery,” says Kary Kingsland, senior vice president of global initiatives for Convoy of Hope. This means that after authorities have completed search and rescue, victims of a disaster need approximately one month of emergency aid and at least one year to reconstruct their lives.

Such an extended time frame provides multiple opportunities for volunteers. But, Kingsland says, it’s the “how, when, where and with whom a person volunteers” that is crucial in how effective the work will be. Here are some important factors to help you make the most of your volunteer hours and, more importantly, to help you be an asset rather than a liability to a recovering community.

1. Pray

Ask God what He wants you to do in response to the disaster. His answer may be for you to give, to go or perhaps, instead, to focus on the needs in your local community that are not receiving national attention. Every day, in every community in America, there are people facing crises who need to know someone cares.

In the critical hours following a major disaster, pray that search and rescue crews will quickly locate survivors who are injured or trapped under debris.

Pray also that survivors will be drawn to God by the compassionate actions and attitudes of Christians with whom they interact in the disaster zone.

When a region’s infrastructure has been destroyed by a large-scale disaster, logistical challenges abound. Pray that rapid-response organizations would be connected with the tangible resources they need to provide timely assistance to survivors.

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, Convoy of Hope disaster responders set up their first distribution site in Picayune, Miss. Thousands of people per day were coming to the site for help. Unfortunately, the fuel in Convoy of Hope’s refrigerated tractor-trailers began to run low, threatening to spoil vital emergency relief supplies. The line at the only open gas station in town was two miles long. Convoy of Hope workers and volunteers began to pray. Soon, a man drove onto the site and donated all of the fuel in his tanker truck to Convoy of Hope—more than 1,000 gallons. Prayer is not a passive way of helping—it works and it’s needed.

“We must be driven by the needs of the people, not the thrill of the adventure.”
—Nick Wiersma

2. Give

Financial gifts to reputable organizations are always welcome. CharityNavigator.orgis a good source to learn which organizations have the highest ratings in fiscal responsibility and accountability.

Because disasters strike suddenly and without notice, the fastest way to help survivors is to support a rapid-response organization on an ongoing basis. After a major disaster, when your organization deploys, you can know you are already helping victims.

3. Calculate

Many rapid-response organizations have relationships with corporate donors that allow them to leverage financial gifts to supply much more than an individual could when purchasing items at retail. For instance, if 15 friends each purchase $100 worth of products at a discount store, they will have enough supplies to fill a pickup. And then they’ll spend more money transporting these supplies to the disaster zone.

However, if these 15 friends donate $1,500 to a relief organization with corporate donors, their buying power multiplies and more goods get to people in need.

4. Connect

When volunteering, always connect with an experienced response organization working in the disaster area. They will know where volunteers are most needed. If additional volunteers are not needed when you first call, be patient. There is a long recovery period ahead when the lack of media coverage will cause volunteerism to diminish.

“When you learn that an organization can use your team, report directly to their command center,” says Nick Wiersma, community services director for Convoy of Hope. “After the Joplin tornado, traffic became gridlocked as emergency vehicles, disaster responders, residents, volunteers and spectators tried to make their way around the city. This can impede the process of getting help to the people who need it most.”

After large-scale disasters, authorities often block access to disaster zones to minimize confusion and prevent looting. Such was the case around Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April when roads leading to badly damaged neighborhoods were blocked to everyone except those with valid identification.

Recognized response organizations give volunteers the credentials they need to gain access to restricted areas.

5. Listen

No matter how well intentioned, volunteers risk consuming the time of emergency personnel through minor traffic accidents or worksite injuries. Experienced responders are best suited to determine if the work your team will accomplish outweighs these risks.

When you travel to a disaster zone and stay in a hotel, eat in restaurants or fill your vehicle with gas, you may be supporting a recovering economy that needs a boost. Or you may be depleting scarce resources available to residents who live in the area.

Jerry Carnes and his wife, Shirley, live just outside of Joplin and had been working long days in sweltering heat to remove storm debris from their hayfield. Carnes is a rancher who depends on the harvest to feed his cattle through the winter.

“After days of labor, we were exhausted,” Carnes says. “In the midst of these trying times [we found] a page from someone’s Bible lying in the grass that read, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ ”

That same day, because Convoy of Hope was listening to the needs of residents, more than 60 Convoy of Hope volunteers were dispatched to Carnes’ ranch to help with the cleanup, enabling him to bale enough hay to retain all of his cattle.

Volunteers willing to wait for the perfect time to respond can make a positive impact that will long be remembered.

6. Commit

When you volunteer, commit to doing whatever tasks need to be done. The volunteers who helped Carnes worked in over 100-degree heat picking up debris, much of it housing insulation.

“Many volunteers want to be in the heart of the disaster zone,” Wiersma says, “when maybe what is needed most is someone to clean the bathrooms or answer the phone at the church housing volunteers several miles out of town. We must be driven by the needs of the people, not the thrill of the adventure.”

In the aftermath of the Joplin tornado, relief organizations utilized hundreds of volunteers to unload supplies from trucks, then organize and distribute them. It may not have been glamorous work, but it was the work most needed at the time and it went a long way toward making relief efforts smooth and effective.

In the critical days and hours following a disaster, organizations are most looking for volunteers trained in rapid response who they have an established relationship with. Most organizations will have a detailed list of qualifications on their website—and the types of volunteers they most need following a disaster.

7. Smile

Be aware that disaster survivors are experiencing emotional trauma and grief. Within two weeks of the Joplin tornado, dozens of memorial services took place.

Every person responds to tragedy in his or her own way. Volunteers are not expected to be counselors, but training in critical incident stress management can help them identify someone who may be experiencing an emotional crisis in the wake of a disaster.

Search online for “critical incident stress management” to find available training opportunities near you.

“If you volunteer in a disaster zone, give residents who have lost friends and family members time and space to grieve,” Wiersma says. “When you interact with survivors, don’t act somber. Smile, offer assistance and be a good listener if they want to talk about their experience.”

If every volunteer keeps these suggestions in focus, survivors like Gillette will receive the most compassionate help in the most efficient manner possible.

Linda Coroleuski works with Convoy of Hope as their reporting coordinator.

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