Catherine Earl (second from left) UMCOR’s US Disaster Response executive, and disaster coordinators for the Arkansas Annual Conference, stand before a “tornado tub,” their version of a supersized cleaning bucket. Tornado tubs are used to store household cleaning items and help disaster survivors sort through or discard belongings as they begin the recovery process.
By Susan Kim*
July 30, 2013—As Hurricane Sandy survivors rummaged through tables full of donations in a relief center, they found...used teabags.
Wait, used teabags?
It's no joke. Somewhere, out in the land of giving, a donor thought hurricane survivors could use a weak, stale cup of tea. Fortunately, there were no moldy crumpets lurking nearby.
When disaster responders were asked about the worst donations they've ever seen, their responses either make you laugh or cringe. There are fur coats for Florida hurricane survivors. Cans of pork-and-beans for Jewish and Muslim communities. Half empty cans of old paint.
What were these donors thinking? When Catherine Earl, US Disaster Response executive for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), saw that someone had donated used clothing with the zippers cut out and buttons cut off, she could almost hear the donor's thoughts out loud: “Hey, they're poor. They should appreciate it!”
What are givers thinking? Most likely, they're thinking they want to help. But before giving anything in the wake of a disaster, donors could try to challenge themselves with a question, suggested Christy Smith, an UMCOR consultant. “It's helpful—but also a bit dangerous—for donors to ask: What would I need if I were suddenly displaced and left with nothing? It isn't probably hemorrhoid cream.”
Smith cited a tweet she received from someone in Joplin, Missouri, after a devastating tornado: “Please send donations...that fit in envelopes.”
Undesignated money is indeed one of the best donations, agreed Mary Hughes Gaudreau, also an UMCOR consultant.
But “stuff” isn't always out of the question, she pointed out. When a tornado outbreak struck parts of Oklahoma in 1999, United Methodist volunteers put together and delivered 700 “Christmas Blessing” boxes that contained hot cocoa mix, mugs, lights, hand-made ornaments and stockings. This material donation brought simple joy to families, recalled Gaudreau.
Another material donation with a nice touch? “Home-grown tomatoes brought to the tornado recovery staff whose gardens had died because they were working so many hours on the recovery,” said Gaudreau.
Across the board, if responders were forced to cite the overall worst donation, they all tend to agree with Richard Norman, disaster response coordinator for the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference: “The worst donation is unwashed, used clothing."
Responders struggle with how to tactfully, lovingly communicate this point to donors without sounding harsh or ungrateful. But, out in the post-disaster field, their perspective is colored by inappropriate donations that not only get in the way but actually cause harm.
When Greg Forrester, head of UMCOR's US Disaster Response unit, visited a tent camp in Haiti, he came across what he still regards as a “personal worst” in witnessing a donation gone wrong: “Stuffed animals given in tent camps where cholera had broken out. Kids dropped and dragged them through the contaminated mud.”
The Top Five Best Donations
Now that you've heard some of the worst disaster donations, here is a countdown of the top five best donations, compiled from responders and disaster survivors across the country.
#5. A sanctuary. Open up your church as a safe place where survivors can experience love, care, and peace, suggested Earl. “A sanctuary isn't just a place. People can be a sanctuary to others, too,” she said.
#4. Training and education – before disaster strikes. The best help comes from those who are equipped for their role in assisting survivors. Learn how to help with cleaning up, providing comfort and care, and planning for local church involvement, including offers of shelter, food, or hospitality.
#3. Prayers. Responders urged people never to overlook the power of prayer as a response—both in the hours after a disaster strikes and through the long haul.
#2. UMCOR Relief-Supply Kits. Assembling or purchasing kits helps keep UMCOR's Relief-Supply Network ready to quickly deliver vital goods into the hands of disaster survivors.
#1. Cash donations. There's a reason this is #1: it's the best donation. Give money through the UMCOR website, via text or telephone, or by setting up an automated monthly withdrawal.
*Susan Kim is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.