Cash donations are among the best ways to help in an emergency. Other material donations may seem appropriate but can easily overwhelm a community that is already reeling from a disaster. Photo: Susan Kim
Know the best ways you can help when disaster strikes
By Susan Kim*
September 15, 2016 — As Jim Truitt was responding to needs in the rural Pacific Northwest after a wildfire, word went out that the fire survivors needed bottled water. They may have indeed needed water that day, Truitt said, but when tractor-trailer loads of water began arriving, the donation turned from an answer to someone’s prayer to a source of angst for the entire community.
“There was a calculation of how much bottled water they had, and they had enough for seven bottles of water for every resident in the county for a year. They didn't have a place to store it — and here comes more,” Truitt said.
Truitt, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Conference, has been responding to disasters at both the conference and national levels for more than a decade. When he talks about post-disaster donations, he turns thoughtful, explaining how sometimes even the most appropriate-seeming donation can turn into a burden for an already-reeling community.
“In the case of the water, it wasn't necessarily inappropriate, but it was way too much,” he said. By the time word of a need is communicated outside a disaster-stricken community, the supplies may have been delivered, and your pallet may just pile onto a growing mountain of unused donations.
To be clear, there are donations that aren’t appropriate at all, he added. In the small fishing village of Galena, Alaska, where most people live by sustenance fishing and hunting, he received a large container full of high-heeled shoes. “You have to send supplies to Galena by barge,” he said. “Just think of what it cost to get those nice shoes up there.”
“Five feet of…what?”
On the opposite side of the country, Michelle Bennington-Lucarelli, associate director of The House of the Carpenter (HOC) in West Virginia, recently arrived at the facility to find the back door blocked by five feet of mattresses, toys, and used clothing. “My staff and volunteers just spent 45 minutes cleaning up clothing, rusted and broken kitchen tools, and stuffed animals to be able to get in this morning,” she said.
Ironically, the HOC team was inundated with five feet of inappropriate donations at the same they were responding to people whose homes were inundated with several feet of floodwater in June. HOC, supported in part by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, operates more than 30 ministries in the area.
“The things that were dropped were probably from yard sales,” said Bennington-Lucarelli. “Everything was either dew-covered or had the odor of the various animals in the area.”
She believes people who drop off items are well-meaning, but some don't know how to discard items. “When eight people have to clean up a yard for 45 minutes, it takes away from other ministries that are going on,” she said. “If you need to bring items, call us and we can make alternate arrangements.”
What’s the donation solution?
There’s no set-in-stone guide to appropriate giving, since every disaster is different and needs change every day. But in the spirit of educating donors, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) presents “Donate This, Not That!” These guidelines are based on recommendations of seasoned responders from many areas of the country.
Please add your own “Donate This, Not That!” ideas in the comments section.
DONATE UMCOR RELIEF-SUPPLY KITS, not supplies such as bottled water. But don’t people need water? Sometimes they do. UMCOR depots, in close contact with responders, time the shipping and distribution of kits to meet survivors’ needs without overwhelming even the smallest of communities.
“When people learn about a disaster, their impulse is to reach out to disaster survivors physically,” said Jack Amick, UMCOR’s senior director of disaster response. “We all have a need for connection and, when we see suffering, we want to help. I think that there is almost a sense of sacramentality driving that impulse: People want something tangible to express something intangible. They want to touch something and send that something to someone that they can't touch, can't see, or don't even know, as a physical sign of God's love.”
Relief-supply kits answer a need for disaster survivors while, at the same time, offering an important connection for the giver, Amick explained.
DONATE STUFFED (WITH CASH) ENVELOPES, not stuffed animals. Thinking of children in the wake of a disaster is a great gesture of compassion, but stuffed animals too often pile up in churches so quickly they take over closets, pews and even entire warehouses.
"With adequate financial resources, UMCOR can partner quickly to provide needed relief supplies that can be purchased locally, or at least in the country or region where the disaster occurred, thus fostering employment and a boost to the local economy,” said Amick. “In some instances, UMCOR works with partners to offer vouchers or gift cards to stores that are still in operation, thus giving the survivors the dignity of selecting what they need themselves.”
DONATE CLEANUP, not clothing. Used clothing is the most oft-given inappropriate donation. Responders call used clothing “the second disaster.” A much better donation? Enroll in UMCOR Early Response Team training, and be ready to help clean up when you’re officially called to do so.
DONATE PRAYERS, not parts of toasters, cars, or furniture. Those managing post-disaster warehouses often find themselves left with broken appliances, random parts that don’t appear to belong anywhere, and even rusting vehicles. “When we give, it is important that we remember that people have a right to receive assistance with dignity,” said Amick. “That, and Christ's directive to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, should remind us that if we were survivors of disasters ourselves we would probably not want to receive someone's discarded items, but be given as much choice as possible.”
Your gifts to UMCOR U.S. Disaster Response, Advance #901670, and UMCOR International Disaster Response, Advance 982450, allow UMCOR to respond quickly and appropriately to emergencies in the United States and around the world.
*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.