|Disaster coordinators, volunteers form covenant|
Volunteers in Mission team members Laurie
Vokes and Karl Acker repair a roof damaged by Hurricane Katrina in
Biloxi, Miss. A new covenant between United Methodist Volunteers in
Mission and the United Methodist Committee on Relief aims for better
collaboration and coordination in disaster situations.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*
June 20, 2007
A United Methodist early response team from San
Antonio surveys tornado damage in Eagle Pass, Texas, last spring. A UMNS
file photo by George Barnette.
When a tornado struck Eagle Pass, Texas, in April, Susan Hellums
found herself thrust into her new role as disaster response coordinator
for the United Methodist Southwest Texas Annual Conference.
But Hellums, who also coordinates the conference’s Volunteers in Mission teams, knew exactly what to do.
She called Barbara Tripp, a consultant with the United Methodist
Committee on Relief, who flew to Texas, made the five-hour drive from
McAllen to Eagle Pass with her and then provided guidance at the
disaster site, offering options on how to manage the relief work.
A few months earlier, both women had been part of what organizers
called a "landmark" meeting of UMCOR and Mission Volunteers staff from
the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, along with disaster
response coordinators and Volunteers in Mission coordinators for the
denomination’s annual (regional) conferences and jurisdictional
The Feb. 8-10 event in Fayetteville, Ark., served as an introduction
to the "UMCOR and UMVIM Covenant in Disaster Response," which provides a
basis for better coordination and collaboration between disaster
responders and volunteer teams.
"To me, it all goes together," Hellums said. "It’s God’s work and God’s mission."
Laying the groundwork
The idea for such a covenant occurred as far back as 1999, according
to the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s director of domestic disaster
response, but the first informal attempt did not succeed. "With the
hurricanes of 2004, it became very apparent to me that we needed to
figure out a better way to work on the relationship (between disaster
coordinators and volunteer teams)," he said.
Difficulties were only magnified by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita the following year.
On a typical Volunteers in Mission trip, he explained, the specific
task and needed materials are already arranged, along with shelter and
meals. In a disaster like Katrina, where there is little or no
infrastructure remaining, such arrangements are impossible. While some
volunteer teams adapt to the situation, others do not, Hazelwood added.
The Rev. Clinton Rabb, who heads the Mission Volunteers program at
the Board of Global Ministries, said Katrina and Rita sparked an
increase in volunteers working both in the United States and around the
"We saw almost a tripling of the number of volunteers working in the
field in total," he said. "The good news is that the volunteer system
did not crumble under pressure. What it did expose was some need for
clarification and definition of the role of volunteers in a disaster."
The Rev. Tom Hazelwood
That clarification is particularly important, according to Rabb,
because the denomination’s role is to facilitate the work of Volunteers
in Mission, which is basically a grassroots movement.
For years, UMCOR has provided training to help annual conferences
deal with the emergency relief and long-term recovery aspects of a
disaster. The point of the covenant is to include a coordinator for
volunteers as part of the early response to a disaster.
In a disaster, a volunteer can range from a concerned individual who
shows up after seeing the event on television to a well-trained
emergency relief worker.
"Between those two extremes, there’s a huge variation," Rabb
explained. "What we’re hoping to do is make it easier to give guidance
to our UMVIM teams as they prepare to go into disaster areas."
Site managers in a disaster are the annual conference coordinators
and any UMCOR staff sent in to assist, he noted. Volunteers serve under
Both Rabb and Hazelwood said support of the covenant from
jurisdictional United Methodist Volunteers in Mission coordinators has
been a key factor in the process.
As the covenant preamble states, "…we give thanks that God has raised
up UMCOR and UMVIM to coordinate and strengthen the servant leadership
of the church for U.S. disaster response and recognize the unique and
complementary gifts and grace of these two programs. We affirm that by
working collaboratively in the oneness of the Body of Christ they are
much more effective and responsive than either can be separately."
Such collaboration already has a model in the North Carolina Annual
Conference, where Tripp worked for a conference organization called
MERCI for seven years. The organization has successfully combined
disaster response and Volunteers in Mission work.
Tripp, who was on the planning committee for the February event,
believes that once everyone understands their role, the covenant will be
"a great partnership."
The Rev. Clinton Rabb
Her relationship with Hellums began last year when Tripp provided training in Southwest Texas for early response disaster teams.
Hellums, whose paid conference job is to coordinate border area
missions, is grateful for UMCOR resources and impressed by its
willingness to participate. "When I called for help, Barbara was there,"
The April 24 tornado killed seven people in Eagle Pass and three
people in nearby Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the Rio Grande River.
Hundreds of mobile homes and permanent homes were destroyed or damaged.
Trained early response teams from Southwest Texas and Oklahoma Indian
conferences started clearing debris on May 2, the same day that
President Bush declared Maverick County a federal disaster area. Since
then, Hellums reported, a few more teams have gone in and an office was
set up with a volunteer coordinator and volunteer construction
coordinator. They soon will begin to receive teams to repair homes, she
"I think we are so blessed as United Methodists to have the
capabilities that we have to be connectional and to have the leadership
in the areas where we need it," Hellums added.
The collaboration on the Eagle Pass disaster "is what I hope we can
model for all our disasters in the future," Hazelwood said. "I think it
has wonderful potential. We can be even better and much more effective
in our response."
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.
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