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Helping survivors is volunteer's passion

BY SUSAN KIM | Markleysburg, PA | December 3, 1998

If you ask her, Shirley Norman will list her disasters by category. For instance, hurricanes: Hugo, Andrew, Fran, and, most recently, Georges. Floods: the midwest, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.

A Church World Service regional disaster response facilitator for the past 13 years, Norman has spent 10 weeks this year on the road in response to disasters. Last year she spent about the same, and the year before it was about 14 weeks.

Norman, who is pastor of Union Chapel in Markleysburg, Pa., a mixed denomination church affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, still remembers the first disaster that called her to this kind of work -- in 1985, when the Cheat River crested at 35 feet and nearly washed away the town of Albright, W.V.

"I was on my way to a doctor's appointment, normally a 27-mile drive, but I had to drive 100 miles because so many roads were closed. I saw upside-down houses and cars. Then I turned on the radio, and a station I normally never get came in loud and clear, asking for volunteers with experience distributing food and clothing."

Her husband had suddenly died that same year. "Before that, I had never done anything but stay home and raise kids. I thought, 'Well, I can either sit still or I can get up and move.' So I spent a week coordinating food and clothing for flood survivors, then I started putting together work crews to rebuild homes," she said.

After responding to her first disaster, Norman concurrently spent a year training as a paramedic, and four years becoming a licensed Church of the Brethren minister. She was ordained six years ago.

Since then, Norman has responded to call after call from the Church World Service to travel to disaster sites to assess needs, organize interfaith response efforts, and simply listen to people tell their stories. The 60-year- old as a trained paramedic, in years past, has pulled people from car accidents, white water rapids, and burning buildings. She used to want to be a race car driver.

But it's not the adrenaline-pumping emergencies that keep Norman in the disaster response business. It's the way she feels about people who have lost everything. "My mother never took me home from the hospital," she said. "I weighed only 2 pounds, 4 ounces and they didn't think I'd make it. I still think that's why something really stirs me inside when I see people who have no home."

Norman said that each disaster different and she learns new lessons from each. Shortly after Hurricane Andrew devastated central Florida, Norman was assigned to manage a help hotline for two weeks in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.

"I couldn't speak Spanish. That was when I found out what it was like to be the minority. I think maybe before that I was a bit of a snob, or at least I was bringing the help as a 'do-gooder' and not as a participant in the community."

Making quick assumptions about a community can lead to ineffective disaster response, she said. In the Albright floods, one of the wealthiest women in town lost $68,000 worth of furs and jewelry. She stood in line at the distribution center with the rest of the townspeople.

"All she wanted was a rake so she could start cleaning the debris from her house and yard," said Norman. "A lot of people told her to go buy what she needed. But I gave her a rake, and she started to cry, and she said 'All I wanted was somebody to admit that I was a victim, too.' A week later we received a substantial donation from that woman."

"That was when I learned to look not at what a person has but what they need. There are a lot of eye-openers in this business."

The hardest disaster yet, has been the 1997 floods in the midwest, she said. "Seeing those farmers losing their crops, seeing their silos just bursting, then going back six months later and seeing the same houses still waiting for repairs was one of the most difficult experiences I can recall."

Norman, who has five children, five step-children, 32 grandchildren and two great-grandsons, said that her family and her congregation understand when she has to hit the road, sometimes with a moment's notice.

She said her congregation supports her disaster response work even though it takes her on the road a lot. "I tell them I'm walking for all of them when I travel to communities that need help," she said. "And they pray for me and for the communities in need."

Norman said that, when she sees entire communities suffering after a disaster, she employs an attitude she learned during medic training. "You do the things you're trained to do and you don't think about what you're seeing."

When does she plan to retire from this business that has her on the road, in strange hotels, and working sometimes 12-hour days? "When my legs won't go anymore, I'll stop. When people tell me I should slow down, I say, 'hey, don't start pushing me because I don't push.' "

This is the first in a series of articles about volunteers active in disaster response organizations.


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