Fire survivors wait outside an emergency operations center for news on their homes.
Southwest Texas Annual Conference
Emotional Care Vital after Texas Fires
By Susan Kim*
June 12, 2012 — When wildfires roared through central Texas last year, more than 5,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Many of them sought shelter in local churches. Then, in search of news on their residences, they traveled to their local emergency operations center.
On the center's window, a list was posted that detailed which homes had burned and which had withstood the blazes. Fire survivors—many of whom had been out of their homes for two weeks—experienced a life-changing moment as they gathered around these listings.
“It's mind-boggling, thinking about that moment, when you learn whether or not your home has burned to the ground,” reflected Eugene Hileman, Disaster Response coordinator for the Southwest Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
The survivors weren't alone in that moment, thanks to the United Methodist Disaster Response “Care Teams” that provided spiritual and emotional care following the Texas wildfires. The teams are conference-credentialed and, with standardized UMCOR training, respond to the spiritual and emotional needs of disaster survivors across the United States.
In Texas, Care Teams stood side-by-side with fire survivors as they found out the news about their homes. They provided a ministry of presence and, at a fire survivor's request, referrals to additional mental health and community support services.
“We were able to provide a kind of street ministry in that moment, with Care Teams who are trained in how to listen and offer support,” said Hileman. “Later, the emergency operations personnel told us how glad they were that we helped people as they received this news.”
Considering that nearly 2,000 homes burned, the Care Teams were a vital part of the Southwest Texas Conference response, he said.
Spiritual and emotional care is a vital—though often quiet—part of response to any disaster, said Mary Hughes Gaudreau, a US Disaster Response consultant for UMCOR.
As she travels across the country to United Methodist conferences, offering training to Care Teams, Gaudreau said she is continually grateful for both the talent and commitment she finds among local volunteers who want to provide emotional and spiritual care.
“I am always touched by the level of gifts people bring to this ministry, by their experience, expertise and compassion," she said.
In the wake of disasters, Care Teams don't provide traditional individual or ongoing counseling, she explained. But they are there to say—and show—that the church cares.
“They offer a listening presence,” said Gaudreau, “to reduce the terrible aloneness survivors feel.”
Help UMCOR train even more Care Teams to show disaster survivors that the church cares. Please give to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670.
*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to www.UMCOR.org.