After the Disaster: What You Need to Know about Volunteering

By Lisa Joyslin, Volunteer Resources Director, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region

392758_10150493476094164_1129906862_a When a disaster strikes – whether a tornado, wildfire, hurricane, or other devastating event – people gravitate toward the same question: How can I help? This is particularly true when the disaster happens locally. We don’t want to sit around and watch news coverage – we want to get out there, get our hands dirty, and help our neighbors.

The American Red Cross, Northern Minnesota Region has teamed up with HandsOn Twin Cities in a new partnership to coordinate volunteers who want to help during a major local disaster. HOTC will be managing volunteer inquiries, scheduling volunteer shifts for the Red Cross, and helping prepare volunteers for the unique experience of disaster volunteering.

To kick off this partnership, we’d like to share with you some tips to better prepare you for volunteering after a disaster:

1.      Be Patient

When people want to help, they often want to help RIGHT NOW. But it takes some time – maybe hours, maybe a couple of days – for local authorities and relief organizations to assess the situation and determine what needs exist. Believe us, we’ll let you know as soon as your help is needed. But until then, sit tight. Extra people at a disaster site can lead to chaos and is often dangerous for well-meaning bystanders. Instead, call or email a local organization – like HandsOn Twin Cities – and ask to be put on a list of volunteers to be contacted when needed.

2.      Be Flexible

It is, after all, a disaster. It will not be organized as perfectly as your typical backpack-stuffing volunteer project or weekly hour of walking homeless dogs. If you volunteer early in the operation you may be setting up the structure of the response, even while the response is already happening (i.e. setting up cots and amenities in a shelter as residents are arriving for food and safety). Volunteer roles are not always clear as people jump in wherever needed. You’ll be able to do more good if you remain flexible and understanding.

3.      Do Some Research

Many organizations assist in disaster relief, and each has a different role. If you want to assist with sheltering or feeding those affected, the Red Cross is a great place to call. If you want to bring your chainsaw and help cut up downed trees, however, you’ll need to find a different organization. Do a little research to determine what organizations do the work you’d like to help with. Volunteer Centers like HandsOn Twin Cities can help with this.

4.      Be Aware of Long-Term Needs

Many people want to volunteer in disaster relief immediately – while the event is still in the news and the story is fresh in their minds. Relief operations, however, often go on for weeks or even months. Think about if your schedule may allow you to help during the second or third week, when volunteer capacity is running low and initial responders need a rest.

5.      Take Care of Yourself

Disaster volunteering can be stressful and emotional. You may see devastation unlike anything you’ve experienced before first-hand. You may find yourself serving as a shoulder to cry on for a family that has lost everything. At the end of the day, you’ll likely be exhausted – not only from the work, but from the emotional stress. It is imperative that you take care of yourself by taking time off, finding ways to relax, taking a moment to laugh or whatever else helps you to relieve stress. Relief organizations often offer help with this – the Red Cross, for example, has mental health volunteers available to talk with Red Cross volunteers and clients in need of a chat or a hug.

6.      Know What Is Needed

In some cases, local disaster relief organizations are able to manage the relief work with pre-trained volunteers, and your help may not be needed. This is also the case with disasters in other states or countries – local authorities may be able to handle the response utilizing local volunteers, which saves both money and time. The best way to help in these situations is to donate. Read a recent Red Cross blog about why money, not stuff is preferred for disaster donations.

7.      Don’t Wait – Do Something Now!

Some disaster relief organizations have tools to help you get ready for disaster volunteering. The Red Cross recently launched a mobile app called “Team Red Cross,” which allows people to indicate their availability to help in a disaster and complete training modules ahead of time. Find out if there are steps you can take right now to let your favorite organization know you’re willing to help when they need you!

Interested in learning more about disaster preparedness? Join the Allstate Foundation and HandsOn Twin Cities on Friday, August 16th from 11 am to 2 pm at the Mall of America. The first 400 attendees will be able to make emergency preparedness kits. More information coming soon! Questions? Contact Rachel Jackelen, rachel@handsontwincities.org

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