The Silver Lining of Disaster

By Susan J. Ellis

Given the distressing and ever-worsening situation following Hurricane Katrina, it just didn't seem right to have a Hot Topic right now about fun. Yes, we actually need fun now more than ever but, with so much misery to alleviate, our priorities rightfully are on helping survivors. So, we'll re-post the Volunteers Just Want to Have Fun essay for October (if you want to read it now, just click the link).

In one week's time, the world has tilted on its axis in ways we never imagined. Hurricane Katrina is the worst natural disaster in the history of our country, affecting a geographic area the size of Great Britain and causing the largest migration of citizens since the Great Depression. The Iraq/Afghanistan military front drags on with mounting casualties, we have two vacancies on the Supreme Court within an extremely polarized political climate, and now we discover that the fragmented emergency response units of governments at all levels are woefully inadequate to respond to a major crisis that was somewhat predictable.

I have often said that volunteers are the silver lining in the cloud of disaster, and that truth is certainly evident everywhere in the United States right now. Despite all the mismanagement and confusion in the Gulf Coast rescue and relief effort, the consistently bright spots of news reporting are what people are doing to help one another. And, in the long term, volunteer work in response to this crisis may bring our country together in ways we can't imagine.

On the individual level, paid first responders have been doing incredible, indescribable service way beyond their normal job no one can pay for the kind of dedication, non-stop efforts, and personal risk offered by those who have been rescuing thousands of people stranded by the flood and destruction. It may not be accurate to refer to this as volunteering, but it sure is both voluntary and heroic.

Ordinary people who dropped everything to help volunteers by any definition are doing an amazing range of work both in direct relief at the site of the disaster and in cities across the nation. The most obvious, and some less visible, tasks volunteers are tackling right now include:

  • Team members under the direction of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the other formal relief organizations to receive evacuees; distribute emergency food, water, bedding, and clothing; offer caring/friendly support; etc.
  • Private citizens who didn't wait for the government or national nonprofits and instead used their own money and supplies to help whomever they could locate in affected areas. On a larger scale, there are countless examples of private groups reaching out to counterparts in Louisiana and Mississippi, such as volunteer fire companies in the north locating a fire company flooded out and sending truckloads of goods specifically to their colleagues in need.
  • People in all 50 states who are opening their homes to evacuees, whether with a spare bedroom, a clear garage, or even a living room sofa. This numbers in the thousands. started the Web site one week ago to facilitate the matching of available beds to people in need and already have 150,000 beds offered. This particular form of service is remarkable for the leap of faith required to open one's home to a stranger for an unknown amount of time (and without reimbursement).
  • Animal lovers who are searching for lost and abandoned pets in the rubble, setting up shelters and adoption programs for these small victims, too. This includes attempting to reunite pets with owners scattered far and wide.
  • Evacuees are currently being shuttled to large shelters in other states, most notably the Houston Astrodome. There are literally thousands of volunteers doing everything from welcoming newcomers and distributing personal items, cooking and serving meals, running youth programs, providing medical and counseling care, and more. Volunteers with the Houston-based nonprofit, Technology for All (, which uses technology as a tool to empower and create opportunities for under-resourced communities immediately set up an Internet center in the Astrodome to allow shelter residents to contact loved ones online and other necessary tasks. Just read the blog from a volunteer at for insight into this effort.
  • Similarly, dozens of cities large and small are preparing to take in groups of displaced citizens. As just one example, here in Philadelphia two school buildings slated for closure are being refurbished for several hundred temporary residents the city is authorizing and funding much of this, but it's volunteers who are doing the bulk of the work.

The Bush Administration has always been interested in mobilizing the faith community in what it calls an army of compassion. While this concern with religion has its opponents, the Katrina crisis is indisputably the perfect opportunity for churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues to express their humanitarian beliefs. And indications are that they are rising to the challenge in a big way. Inter-denominational cooperation is mobilizing, again, thousands of volunteers to assist with relief work and perhaps more importantly to commit to longer-term assistance to help evacuees who wish to resettle in the new community find jobs and permanent housing.

This is all an immediate response to a clear and present need. But the work will literally go on for years. It's a Herculean effort that's not for the faint-hearted. Yet it's exactly what is best about a democratic society: the ability and the will of its citizens to work together for the common good. We've often forgotten this in the midst of dispute and turmoil, but times like these remind us that we have more in common than not. We'll need some distance from today to see and evaluate the ultimate results of this tragic situation, but let's be mindful of the good that might come out of all this.

  • Maybe there will be new interest in eliminating poverty, since the hurricane blew the lid off the seamy underside of American prosperity to reveal just how many people live on the edge every day.

  • Maybe those evacuees who have been the invisible poor will ultimately find a better life since, all of a sudden, they are receiving personal attention from people who want to help.

  • Maybe school systems suddenly faced with unanticipated jump in student numbers will find citizens newly willing to tutor and give other support to all students.

  • Maybe people who were comfortable in their closed communities will discover, through volunteer relief work, that all people share common needs and emotions, whether of different races, educational levels, employment histories, or other ultimately superficial differences.

We can hope.

Our deepest concern and good wishes go to all who are involved in this remarkable national effort. Volunteers got there first, are there now, and will be there through the coming months and years. Count on it.

If you would like to share a volunteering story related to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, or explain something volunteers are doing to help that is out of the ordinary, please submit a response.

Addendum (posted 10 September 2005)

A Powerful Idea

Karen Key, the Director of Volunteer Alliances for AARP, voiced a creative and powerful idea during a conversation with me and colleagues from Youth Service America, the Points of Light Foundation, and the National Human Service Assembly. We had been talking about the barriers both young and old people face in offering their services as volunteers, as well as the importance of doing so.

We all agreed that two critical benefits individuals derive from volunteering are an increase (sometimes the start of) self-confidence and a feeling of affirmation. (Thanks to Bob Goodwin of the Points of Light Foundation for suggesting this view of volunteering.) Both are necessary for every human being, but often the young and the old have few ways to feel worthwhile or to achieve recognition. Service to others demonstrates – to volunteers themselves – that they can be givers of help as well as recipients, and that they have skills and talents to contribute that others value.

That led to a discussion of Hurricane Katrina and all those evacuees sitting in crowded shelters waiting to restart their lives. Karen mused, “wouldn’t it be incredible if the evacuees were given the chance to go out and do volunteer work to help others? Think of how that would turn the tables for them and return some self-esteem.” Wow! What a great idea.

It’s so easy to look at the thousands of evacuees as simply people in need. And, of course, they are in great need and truly in crisis. But once their immediate requirements for care and sustenance are met, they are sitting around doing nothing. Worse, as the days go by, they are continuing to receive charity from others in a one-way flow.

I’m sure that many shelter residents are finding ways to make themselves useful to others on a one-to-one basis (child and senior respite care, Internet research for those who don’t know how to do it, organizing play for children, etc.). But if the organizations coordinating the relief activities would stop for a moment and really see these people as more than “in need,” some remarkable developments could occur. First, why not ask willing and able shelter residents to help in the relief effort itself? For one thing, I’ll bet there are some great cooks who would love to participate in cooking the mass meals. Let your imagination go and many other types of tangible activities will occur to you – each one providing genuine service, keeping the evacuees busy in ways that affirm they still have much to give. To do this well, it would be necessary to inventory the talents and experience of shelter residents, much like compiling a “skills bank” to tap.

Now take this idea one step further. If you are managing a volunteer center or individual agency program that is in close proximity to a shelter, do some recruitment there. This is neither a prison nor a hospital; the residents are allowed to come and go as they wish. So figure out a way with shelter organizers to post a notice or make an announcement and publicize various volunteer position openings, both one-time chances to serve and ongoing assignments (many of these people will not be returning home for a long time). Naturally each person can freely choose whether or not to participate, but many will welcome this as an opportunity to say thank you to the community that so willingly rescued them. In so doing, they will feel useful – a great first step on the road to recovery.

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