United Methodist Committee on Relief

Flood Bucket Challenge unites seminary in disaster response

By John W. Coleman*

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017 many concerned students at the Boston University School of Theology felt they had to help the survivors there in some meaningful way. But how?

Burdened with schoolwork, short on time and funds, many students—including some from Puerto Rico—approached the Rev. Charlene Zuill, spiritual life coordinator, looking for ideas. She turned to the United Methodist Committee on Relief and found a solution that united students in a creative, community-building mission endeavor.

Zuill challenged students involved in the school’s community life program to raise $10,000 for cleaning supplies and flood buckets (now known as cleaning kits) to aid Hurricane Maria survivors. The result was the school-wide Flood Bucket Challenge, which took place during the fall semester of 2017.

When Zuill asked for someone to lead the effort, Tory Dillard, a United Methodist and first-year M.Div. student from Erin, Tennessee, stepped forward. 

“As a new student, I was hoping to find a place to belong. When I told her I was interested, she asked me to organize a group of students to help,” said Dillard. He had led similar campaigns in high school and as student president of the Wesley Foundation at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.

The initially small, but committed, team of student leaders grew to 10. They worked on creating posters and other media, making announcements at weekly student gatherings, collecting and accounting for donations, purchasing and assembling buckets, and other tasks. 

Faculty members and many of the seminary’s diverse student organizations joined in, challenging one another to match donations for flood buckets. The associate dean of Students and Community Life allowed organizations to contribute to the cause from their school-allocated funds. 

Flood Bucket Challenge Crew.JPG

Back row, left to right: Tory Dillard, MDiv’20; Spiritual Life Coordinator Rev. Charlene Zuill; Maggie Ward, MDiv’20; Carly Payne MDiv’19. Front row, left to right: Makenna Daniels, MTS’19; Paige Holaday, MDiv’19. Not pictured: Tabitha Nelson, MDiv’18. PHOTO: Kimberly Macdonald

Dillard and others promoted the effort at weekly chapel services and student community lunches, displaying stacked buckets and a colorful thermometer image to show progress as enthusiasm and anticipation grew. 

“It was really a unique, strategic, all-around effort,” said Dillard. “It was hard work but a lot of fun. My main job was to talk it up everywhere and help get people excited. Many of us were new and didn’t know each other that first semester. So, people just called me the ‘flood-bucket guy.’”

Chapel services brought offerings, prayers and donated supplies for hurricane survivors, including families of some students and faculty. While many gave checks and cash, others donated using UMCOR’s online giving page. 

“When Maria came (following two August hurricanes, Harvey and Irma) everyone said ‘Oh my God! What can we do?’” recalled Zuill. “We wanted to give our community a feeling that they could do something. A lot of times students are focused on their studies and might feel disconnected from events happening beyond campus. They don’t have much money, and some feel frustrated. This gave them a chance to respond in community together and do something meaningful.”   

“We bought materials to fill about 40 buckets initially,” said Zuill. “I loaded them into my car and made several trips to a United Methodist church in our area to deliver them.” When UMCOR’s warehouses filled up with flood buckets, they asked donors to send funds instead.** The students sent the remainder of their collection as international disaster response funds.   

The campaign elevated the concern and cooperation of students, faculty and administrators, and it exceeded Zuill’s initial goal by raising $6,500, which in 2017 would have been enough to purchase and fill 100 flood buckets at $65 each. Dillard and his team wrote thank-you notes to each donor. 

“We turned in the last bucket just before our December semester break,” he reported. “Charlene and I wouldn’t be able to do all this alone. It took a team of committed people; and ultimately, it took our whole village.”

That success led to another this fall. In response to more destructive hurricanes, Dillard, now the school’s student coordinator of Community Life, led others in launching another campaign to support UMCOR’s ongoing disaster response efforts. “UMCOR is out there working to help people,” he said, “and we just wanted to be a part of that again.”

Their goal was to raise $1,000 in three weeks. They raised $1,140 at several gatherings in October, “by just passing one of last year’s buckets around the room” and also by inviting students and faculty to give online. 

“I’m telling people to keep on donating to UMCOR,” said Dillard, who looks forward to becoming a pastor someday. “The reason I trust UMCOR so much is because 100 percent of donations go to help victims. It’s not just because I’m United Methodist.”

Zuill sees another potential benefit in the school’s two successful flood bucket challenges. “Hopefully, we’re modeling what folks can do when they get to their places of ministry. If you can do something like this in seminary, you can do it in a congregation or a social service agency. They have witnessed what’s possible.”

**Changes to UMCOR relief supply kits empower communities

*John Coleman is the director of communications for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church and a writer for Global Ministries.