By Allison Lindsey, Associate Director of Connectional Ministries
Building capacity - described as the process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes, and resources needed to survive, adapt, and thrive - has been a key phrase among conference leaders this past year when it comes to disaster response.
Admittedly, disaster response becomes very challenging in that as you move out of a disaster event, the awareness and interest fades over time and the sense of urgency to be prepared is forgotten by most. Up until our most recent events, South Georgia had not seen this magnitude of devastation since the Albany floods of 1994. Because of this large time gap, we have found ourselves in a rebuilding mode around all facets of our conference disaster response ministry.
Looking back over the past 15 months, beginning with the impact of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the winds, tornadoes and hurricanes in 2017, I am amazed and proud of the capacity the South Georgia Conference has built and will continue to build around disaster response.
The key to building our capacity has been resources: financial, material (relief supplies) and people - volunteers being the hands and feet to reach out and help those in need. One thing that has been so clearly evident as we have walked alongside of communities following these catastrophic events is the great strength in the connection as United Methodists have provided the necessary resources to respond.
In 15 months, 225 volunteers were trained and badged as Early Response Team (ERT) volunteers. In addition, 64 ERT volunteers received chainsaw training. Our Conference is grateful to Rev. Rick Hamilton (Lakeland UMC) who has served many years as our ERT trainer. We now have two certified ERT trainers in addition to four individuals from our Conference who attended the UMCOR Train the Trainer intensive and are working on their certification. Rick Dorer (Pierce Chapel UMC) and David Aman (Trinity UMC, Warner Robins) currently lead the chainsaw operator training and their background and experience have been valuable resources.
Conference staff and leaders continue to be trained through the Southeastern Jurisdictional Disaster Academy and through the UMCOR Disaster Symposium at Sager Brown. These specialized trainings allow us to share best practice and provide networking opportunities with other Annual Conferences.
The United Methodist Church’s “niche” in disaster response is Case Management. Our Conference provided UMCOR Case Management training in Albany last Spring, which brought together faith based groups from the Albany area. Rev. Stacey Harwell-Dye, who is a case manager in the Savannah area following Hurricane Matthew, was also part of the training and is now looking looking to continue this ministry for those impacted by Hurricane Irma. Ed Haggerty (Avalon UMC) is playing a vital role in representing the South Georgia Conference with Albany Relief & Recovery, the long-term recovery group for Dougherty County. South Georgia will be providing this training for the coastal communities next month.
Donations and Grants
Our capacity and response to the unmet needs have been undergirded by the generous donations of our members, churches, people from all over the country, and through UMCOR grants. We were also recently awarded a National VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster) grant for computers, printers, and the technology needed for case management.
Prepare and plan
Last year it was inspiring to see the ways that churches were meeting needs, rolling up their sleeves and helping in clean-up efforts, assembling relief supplies, and offering radical hospitality in sheltering.
During the months-long Okefenokee Swamp fire in spring 2017, Folkston UMC fed 450 first responders. And as the community of Adel mourned the loss of lives following the January tornado, Adel UMC received donations to assist families with funeral costs when they became aware of the need.
As you can see, churches have an amazing opportunity to have a presence in their communities and show the love of God following a disaster, but being proactive and prepared is essential.
If you and your church would like to explore ways you can prepare and plan to minister to your community, The Office of Connectional Ministries is hosting three training events February through April using UMCOR’s “Connecting Neighbors” curriculum as the foundation. Breakout sessions will include sheltering and Spiritual and Emotional Care. Through the connection, equipping our local churches provides valuable resources and strengthens our Conference response. For more information and to register, click here.
In addition, Luis Morales (Centerville UMC), who serves as our Conference Disaster Coordinator and has tirelessly coordinated resources, trainings and the work teams that have come into our area, is working to have all six District Disaster Response Coordinators in place. We will be encouraging each local church to find someone passionate about this ministry that could be a point person for your local church to assist the district, which assists the Conference. The connection offers us maximized capacity.
I have only shared the tip of the iceberg, and I hope this provides a glimpse of where we are now and how we arrived. Although we have come so very far, there is still much work to do.
To call 2017 a steep learning curve for me personally would be an understatement. I personally have built capacity and with each event have felt better equipped for the next disaster - since we know disasters are not an if, but when - now having walked through three hurricanes, one wildfire, streamline winds and tornadoes, all within a 15 month time span.
Thank you for the many ways each of you have supported our work through your prayers, gifts, service, and witness. For more information about the Conference Disaster Response Ministry, please feel free to contact me.