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Need remains but IN volunteers scarce

Hundreds of homes damaged in 2008 flooding in Indiana still need repair but volunteers are hard to find.

BY TEJINDER SINGH | BALTIMORE | November 18, 2009

A year after severe flooding in Indiana forced hundreds of residents from their homes, disaster respnse organizations are facing a dearth of volunteers who can help speed recovery for people’s lives limping back to normal. 

Rhonda A. Carlson, Volunteer Coordinator, Lakeshore Area Regional Recovery of Indiana (LARRI), said her organization is facing “a challenge in getting the word out to national volunteers that would probably want to come to Northwest Indiana,” adding, “but the information on what our needs (are) is not reaching them.”

Carlson said the fact that the floods occurred “over a year ago,” “most people think that the problem has been taken care of,” adding, “Even local volunteers are shocked to hear we have over 150 guts still on our list to do.”

Donna George, Communication Coordinator LARRI, explained the dilemma of the general public saying, “Now that the water has receded and the debris has been removed from most streets, the damage is no longer visible. The public tends to believe that everything has been taken care. It comes as a shock to most people that the need continues to be dire and urgent.”

“Since there are so many other disaster sites around the world, volunteers tend to go to the most recent disaster,” Carlson added.

"The situation with LARRI, as is the case with many ongoing Midwestern flood recovery efforts, has been overwhelming for local communities. Our state has not faced the kind of vast devastation of the 2008 floods before. While there was much attention initially, it was quickly overshadowed by Iowa and the Gulf," said Lucinda Nord, Vice President for Public Policy of the Indiana Association of United Ways.

"Volunteers have been key to the recovery efforts. We have mobilized more volunteers than we could have imagined. But it is still not enough."

Due to “unprecedented numbers of disasters across the country,” the organization has embarked on a campaign to reengage “our local business, service and faith-based communities in the recovery efforts. That involves education and building relationships,” said George.

The financial downturn and economic slowdown also appears to be taking its toll on the volunteering prospects. “With our social economic situation, we find that if people are having problems taking care of their own needs it is difficult for them to reach outside of themselves to serve another person,” Carlson explained.

On the effects of economic factors, Art Opperwall, Program Manager for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), agreed that there is “a dampening effect on volunteering,” but added a positive note, “there is a flip side to this also. There are workers especially in the construction sector, who are graciously taking advantage of slowdown in work, volunteering in these hard times.” 

Sarah Jamieson, former AmeriCorps VISTA member for Sea Island Habitat for Humanity in Johns Island, South Carolina, reflected on this attitude. “One could say that, during hard times, people can't afford to volunteer but such is an assumption, as volunteering is prevalent when people feel they cannot give money but can give time," she explains. "Such substitution is especially viable for people who are already committed to an organization’s cause.”  

In addition, disaster volunteering is often seasonal -- highest in the summer months and more challenging at other times of the year, even though flood related needs remain.

Opperwall elaborated on this challenge. “We have sent a lot volunteers nearly in hundreds, particularly over the summer months but as the weather gets colder, people tend to go south, hence the slowdown in this season,” he said.

“As with business in general, volunteering sees a huge seasonal shift," Jamieson added. "It depends on the demographic and age of the volunteer you are talking about, different age groups shift with the seasons very differently.”

On the ways and means to enhance volunteer participation, Jamieson shared her experience saying that it also helps any organization to have a “tie-in with the court system where individuals convicted of non-felony related crimes are given an opportunity to have their record erased in exchange for a number of hours of volunteer work with local non-profit organizations,” adding, “through this, I hosted anywhere from 10-25 of these individuals weekly.”

Carlson is trying to appeal to volunteers citing the free lodging and convenience to the Chicago metropolitan area. “We are only 25 minutes out of Chicago,” inviting, “volunteers that have the desire to visit the city.”

On the local, George said LARRI is using as many avenues of spreading the need as possible. “We currently have radio ads running, billboards across the three affected counties requesting volunteers, we are investigating ads that will run at local movie theaters, we have recently produced a video that will be used as a recruiting tool for volunteers and we are also using Facebook and Twitter.”

Opperwall said CRWRC supports the efforts of LARRI and will help them until the work is done.

LARRI began in November of 2008 in response to the unprecedented floods of September 2008 in northwest Indiana. LARRI is a long-term recovery committee funded through a grant from Lilly Endowment and disaster response organizations, which has been assisted by the Indiana Association of United Ways. 


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