Volunteers: The Lifeblood of Storm Response
By Susan Kim*
November 7, 2012—After Hurricane Sandy ripped through the New Jersey coast, the Manasquan United Methodist Church was left without power, but the Rev. Reggie Albert was determined that her church wouldn’t be powerless.
She started with the simple act of opening the doors. “I wasn’t sure what I would do, but I knew I wanted to open the church.”
The next day, she set up a generator, and four people gathered at the church before dawn to make a “simple breakfast” for a dozen or so people.
It grew into a feast for the masses. “We fed 300 people that morning,” she said, “and food just kept coming in.”
Was it a miracle? It’s the miracle of volunteers who are in the right place at the right time. That’s sometimes hard to come by, particularly in the emergency phase of a disaster, when it’s too early for trained Early Response Teams to deploy, too early to organize and house out-of-state volunteers, and too early for hurricane survivors to even know exactly what they need.
During this chaotic phase, faith-based response depends on churches that open their doors because the volunteers behind those doors are reaching out, said Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s assistant general secretary for US Disaster Response.
“There is never any reason for neighbors not to help neighbors,” he said.
At the same time, it’s often complicated in the emergency phase to even attempt to match up rapidly-changing needs of disaster survivors with volunteers who are aching to help and become frustrated when they can’t, he added.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of the United Methodist response,” he said. “It is key for long-term recovery that you are set up to be able to receive volunteers.”
The Greater New Jersey Conference is doing just that, said Bishop John Schol, who consulted with Hazelwood as he mapped out a response plan.
The conference is in the process of setting up a website on which volunteers can register and sign up to travel to New Jersey, said Schol, who got power back in his own home only a day ago.
Sending the right message to volunteers is never easy. Sometimes, especially in the first few weeks after a disaster strikes, a spontaneous local response reaches disaster survivors at just the right time.
“This is the way it’s going to be for a while,” he said. “We’re in a crisis. There are no easy answers and no quick fixes.”
But the hurricane survivors will get there, he said. Meanwhile, out of the chaos, the miracles emerge.
At St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Bay Head, volunteers are serving meals for 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Rev. Scott Bostwick had no idea his church would be asked by local emergency management officials to become the meal provider for the town.
As he watches trays of food being carried off of vans into the church, Bostwick said he has relied on volunteers to help his church become the town’s relief center.
“Half my congregation can’t even get into town,” he said. “But these volunteers are helping the whole town of Bay Head. “I have no idea who they are, but they’re helping.”
*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor for www.umcor.org.