Boots on the Ground: Haiti and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission
By Laura Wise*
This article is the first in a series of special coverage
commemorating the 5-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. Click here for the full series.
|Rev. Tom Vencuss, project coordinator, Haiti Response Plan (right) at a construction site in Haiti where new home foundations were being prepared. Photo: Mike DuBose.
Iowa, the Great Flood of 1993. North Carolina, Hurricane Floyd, 1999.
New York City, September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of each of these
disasters, Rev. Tom and Rev. Wendy Vencuss of the New York Annual
Conference were there, helping communities to recovery and get back on
their feet. Even this long and committed experience, though, would not
prepare them for the events of January 12, 2010.
In Haiti for partnership meetings between the Methodist Church of
Haiti (EMH) and Methodists from around the world, Tom and Wendy can
recall their exact location—at the Methodist Guesthouse in
Port-au-Prince—on that quiet afternoon when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake
struck the small Caribbean country. When it was over, one thing was
clear; Haiti needed help. “Boots on the ground,” Tom dubbed it, speaking
of the role of volunteers in relief efforts.
Tom was a natural fit to serve as a coordinator for the United
Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) program in Haiti. He and Wendy
had been coming to Haiti for years, spending months at a time there. In
November 2010 they moved in and remained in Haiti through August 2013.
While Tom coordinated the work of volunteers, Wendy, an emotional and
spiritual care consultant with the United Methodist Committee on Relief
(UMCOR), took on the role of accompaniment, working with local
communities through the spiritual challenges of recovery.
Established Relationship, New Responsibilities
|Rev. Tom Vencuss, project coordinator, Haiti Response Plan (left) and Bill Borah, project coordinator for the Haiti Home Assistance Program (right). Photo by Mike DuBose.
Tom and Wendy’s journey with the Haitian people began in 2002, when they founded Mountains of Hope—a ministry of the New York Annual Conference—in
the small, rural community of Furcy. For many years, they worked
tirelessly with the residents of this resource-poor community to build
their capacity to thrive. The Vencuss’ focus on sustainable community
development positioned them well to partner with UMCOR after the
earthquake. Tom mobilized volunteers to repair damaged structures,
provide business training to local communities, and support a hot lunch
program for school children.
Shortly after the quake, the Haiti Response Plan (HRP), a three-year
partnership among EMH, UMCOR and UMVIM to coordinate recovery efforts,
was formed. Una Jones, associate general secretary of Mission
Volunteers, spoke of the importance of timing. “UMVIM teams have been
going to Haiti for more than 50 years. We had to hold off [from sending
them] in the beginning, in order to plan a strategic process.”
This plan, the HRP, consisted of three key components, she said.
“First, it allowed the EMH to define their priorities. Second, the
partnership between UMVIM and UMCOR was designed to provide matching
grants for the money raised by each volunteer team. Third, the plan
required a ratio of two hired Haitian workers to every one foreign
Jones highlighted how pivotal the HRP model was. “It was the first of
its kind. It helped all partners to think strategically and take
ownership for this shared ministry.”
The program, which organized United Methodists to give their time and
talents in short-term mission, allowed the church to mobilize
volunteers in a new way. Between 2010 and 2013 UMVIM Haiti equipped more
than 4,000 volunteers to work in Haiti through the HRP before it
transitioned to local leadership, lead today by Carine Odilus, the EMH
VIM team coordinator.
“The UMVIM program started as a grassroots movement,” Tom said.
“While we [the church] had national and international organizations,
they didn’t really engage volunteers. The UMVIM program changed that.”
The In’s and Out’s
|Tom Vencuss & Jim Borah with W&R participants in Mellier, Haiti. Photo: Melissa Crutchfield.
Not only did the UMVIM program assist in rebuilding through
volunteers; it also provided a vehicle for sustainable development
efforts. “And, like what typically happens with the VIM program, there
was an immediate response—literally thousands of people waiting to come
in-country to do work,” Tom recalls.
Tom also shared some of the critical elements of volunteer management he faced in his role. “We took a hit when books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts came out. We had teams come in and, during the orientation, their first question would be, ‘I just read Toxic Charity.
How are we not destroying something here?’ When you work with the local
communities and you listen to them and begin to develop a relationship
and true partnership, you can avoid those pitfalls.
“Having an established program like UMVIM allows you to work through a
system,” he continued. “It provides continuity, a certain structure, a
certain set of guidelines. Unfortunately, the image of volunteers is
that they drive down the road throwing money out of their cars. By
having programs like this [UMVIM] in place, we can make sure a lot of
these problems don’t exist, or reduce the probability that these things
Tom is no longer the UMVIM Haiti coordinator; he is back in the U.S.,
working with the New York Annual Conference on its post-Hurricane Sandy
recovery program. The HRP strategy contemplated the successful
transition of the volunteer program to EMH. All volunteers who sign up
to work in Haiti now work directly with EMH for resourcing, logistics,
assignments and so forth.
“One thing that isn’t always recognized is the incredible wealth of
skill and experience that volunteers bring. Medical and dental work,
amazing educational work, teaching and care ministries—like what Wendy
provides—vacation Bible schools; they help fundraise, they help
resource; many just need direction,” said Tom. Volunteers have
undoubtedly been an integral part of the rebuilding process in Haiti.
Tom and Wendy, the entire UMCOR staff and EMH are extremely grateful
for the outpouring of volunteer support over the last five years. The
work of volunteers in Haiti is an outstanding example of the power of
our connection as a global church.
Tom and Wendy leave us with a challenge: “As a mission community,
let’s see how we can begin to train and best use the resources of
volunteers moving forward. And to all who gave their time and talents to
help rebuild Haiti, thank you.”
*Laura K. Wise is a mission intern
serving as a mission communicator with The General Board of Global
Ministries at its New York City headquarters.