This is Renita. When she heard about the devastation and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, she immediately signed up to be trained as a Red Cross volunteer. Several days later, she was called to report to the new mega shelter set up by the City of Austin to receive evacuees. Renita, a professional event planner/association executive, saw what needed to be done and she jumped in to do it, working five 12- to 14-hour days from Thursday through Labor Day. When she saw the facility running out of water, she coordinated a delivery. When she saw that they needed additional snacks, coffee and milk, she contacted the Food Bank and Starbucks or reached out via social media and handled it. (This quickly earned her a “promotion” from off-the-street volunteer to Assistant Shelter Food Manager in the matter of hours on Day 1 at the shelter!) When a family needed help relocating to a shelter closer to their home on the coast, she helped them find one. When she saw that evacuees needed suitcases to organize/carry their few belongings along with donated items (which were mostly stored in garbage bags), she spearheaded a luggage drive and the community responded with more than 60 suitcases.
"There is so much innate compassion, kindness and generosity in people; disasters help bring that out in us all," says Renita. I asked her what she could share with others who want to help in times of crisis but don't know where to start. Here’s what she had to say:
· As a fellow volunteer and friend said “Once you start trying to really dig in and help, you get a glimpse of how monstrous a task it is [and you think to yourself] I've made such a little nothing of a difference”. That’s exactly how I felt when I first got started. But then I had to remind myself that “it’s little drops of water that make a mighty ocean” and that as Mother Theresa said “do small things with great love” and that will make a big difference in the vast ocean of need.
· Don’t be shy about sharing your specific skill set and talents with team leaders, and seeking ways to use those talents and skills.
· There are countless numbers of volunteers who work 6-10 days of 12-hour shifts back to back and receive little thanks, no fancy titles, no recognition. They were the silent everyday heroes that inspired me the most.
· When in need, just ask, and you shall receive.
· The easier/more convenient you make it for folks to donate, the more likely they are to do it. Make specific “asks” such as asks for suitcases/strollers, etc., and set up donation drop offs in different parts of town to make donating convenient.
· Always sort and label your donations to help make it easier on volunteers and organizations receiving donations. (Men’s/women’s, size/type of clothing, shampoo, etc.) Sorting and organizing mass donations and getting it to those in need is a humongous, time-consuming and incredibly challenging task. (Finding a size 32/32 pair of pants or 0-3 months onesie for an evacuee from bags and bags of donations is like finding a needle in a haystack!)
· There is a LOT of room for improvement in disaster relief efforts (on all fronts – non-profits, city officials, facilities managers, etc.), and so much mismanagement/lack of communication, etc. that it is extremely easy to get frustrated and disenchanted. You just have to stay laser focused on those you’re there to serve and try to help them the best way you can, given the dire circumstances and oodles of red tape. Local volunteers can play key roles in coordinating/organizing local resources that out-of-town volunteers and management often miss or just aren’t aware even exist.
"Volunteering in this disaster has helped me connect with so many amazing, kind and good-hearted people!," says Renita. "The whole experience has energized/inspired me to want to do more for my community, especially in the area of disaster relief. Might I have stumbled upon a new life purpose? Perhaps."