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Disaster relief network gains volunteers, exposure after 9/11

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers were rolling — ready to cook meals for victims and recovery workers, care for children and otherwise do the jobs they had done so many times before.

By the time those emergency efforts finally concluded in late July, the response had shaped the entire Southern Baptist disaster relief network more than any single response since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

There were new areas of ministry that demonstrated the importance of flexibility — including an expanded chaplaincy response, opportunities for cleaning up apartments and even impromptu efforts like distribution of Teddy Bears that flooded the city as expressions of love and support from around the world. But the biggest long-term impact has come from the new awareness of disaster relief efforts among both Southern Baptists and the nation at large.

“There has been a significant increase in the number of people volunteering for training,” said Mickey Caison, national coordinator of Southern Baptist disaster relief and adult volunteer mobilization coordinator for the North American Mission Board. “We usually have about 2,500 volunteers participating in training in a year, and this past year we saw about 5,000.”

The 319-day response was the longest sustained emergency relief effort in the disaster relief network’s history — eclipsing in duration even the massive response following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Mobile kitchen units operated by state conventions and associations provided the bulk of the response force in both New York and Washington, along with support structures such as communications units, shower units, even a laundry unit to keep volunteers supplied with clean clothes. Later the mobile kitchen efforts were consolidated with Salvation Army operations, with Southern Baptists partnering to supply volunteers.

Childcare units also set up stations in relief centers, allowing victims and their families to file paperwork knowing that their children were being lovingly cared for.

Chaplains were mobilized not only to care for the stressed recovery workers, but also just to mingle with grieving crowds surrounding impromptu memorials that sprung up around Manhattan. Later, some of the largest public response came when Southern Baptists used their experience in cleaning out homes to offer a cleaning service for apartments in the immediate area, with 643 apartments cleaned.

The final numbers signal the scale of the commitment. Volunteers from 32 state conventions participated, contributing 20,842 “volunteer days” — defined as one volunteer working one day. A total of nearly 1.29 million meals were prepared, and 842 children were served in childcare centers.

The public exposure of the disaster relief efforts will make future ministry even more effective, Caison said. Relationships with the city have been formed that will enable more ministry opportunities in the future, including efforts surrounding the New Hope New York Strategic Focus Cities outreach effort that will bring thousands of volunteers and other resources to the city over the next few years.

“In New York people on the street would stop volunteers with yellow shirts and just thank them for coming,” he said.

“It shows Southern Baptists as caring people, and that we do have a servant’s heart. We are willing to get dirty to help people,” he added. “You had churches and associations that were doing these things, but there was an opportunity with Washington and New York to be seen as more than just the little church on the corner.”

Caison said the level of national exposure also has opened doors with many agencies and partners that had not existed previously. The network in the past has worked with the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency primarily to provide feeding, with other areas of response usually coordinated through other channels.

“Increasingly with state and local governments we’re going to be taking responsibility in other areas, such as cleanup and recovery and spiritual care responses,” Caison said, noting discussions already are underway with state officials who contacted Southern Baptists directly to be involved in their comprehensive homeland security planning.

Relationships with the Salvation Army also have been strengthened through the shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation, he said.

“What happened is that Salvation Army leadership from all over the country and Southern Baptists from all over the country wound up working together in New York City,” he said. “So those two entities have gotten to know each other and begun to formulate how we would respond together.”

The role of chaplaincy in the organization also has evolved significantly. There continues to be a two-pronged approach of both assigning chaplains to specific disaster relief units to minister both to the volunteers and others at feeding sites. But New York also demonstrated the importance of allowing chaplains to simply wander through crowds, ministering to the public at large.

The nature of the response also has shaped the training for disaster relief volunteers, Caison said. Where hurricanes and floods were once the primary threat, emergency response training now includes safeguards for terrorist scenarios involving weapons of mass destruction.

“We’re not going into the hot zones, but how do we take care of those people who are in the hot zones?” Caison said. “There are concerns for our own safety and protection that we have not considered in the past.”

Generally, he said, Sept. 11 has further solidified Southern Baptists’ reputation as one of the top providers of volunteer disaster relief services in the country — opening doors for the message of Christ those volunteers bear.

“Sept. 11 provided validity for the type of ministry we do, that the ministry of serving Christ in the crisis was very real,” he said. “And the physical things that we did gave us the opportunity to share the spiritual interests that we have.

“To quote one of the government officials we worked with, we gave hope,” Caison said. “And that brought us back to the very foundation of who we are — that we can’t get caught up in the mechanisms of giving help and forget about the hope that we have to give. And that hope of course is Jesus Christ.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MEAL PREPARATION, ONCE-MAGNIFICENT VIEW, SORTING & PROCESSING and CHAPLAINS AT GROUND ZERO.

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  • James Dotson