Laurie Bender still remembers the most meaningful donations she received after her home was leveled by a tornado last summer: a brand new wagon; a used swingset; and a voucher for a new wooden playset for her children; a fruit trailer truck to store the family's salvageable furniture and appliances; new pillows and blankets; beautiful handmade Christmas ornaments from the Mennonite Central Committee; and some extra money to help make ends meet.
The tornadoes that ripped through rural Salisbury, changed Bender's life. But so did the donations she received from friends and from her fellow church members at Oakdale Mennonite Church. She said that, from now on, she will respond differently to someone else's need after a disaster.
"My previous response was to see what we had that we didn't need, and give that as a donation. I wouldn't have thought 'go out and buy the best.' But when I received brand new things I felt very blessed that people would not just give us leftovers. It was very touching," she said.
Much as the right donation can touch people's lives, disaster response and relief organizations still maintain that cash donations are most likely to directly help disaster survivors. But even Kevin King, material resources manager for the Mennonite Central Committee, who has handled donations on the magnitude of 120 tons of food for Kosovan refugees, said that donating goods can help people learn about other's lives.
"First let me say that cash is always best," he said. "But the hands-on activity involved in donating goods can teach people.
"We're getting more and more calls from public high schools that want to donate goods. They want to pack refugee kits, for example. So I see it as a teachable moment. Also, when people receive goods they know have been donated, it gives them physical and spiritual encouragement."
The rapidly changing needs of disaster survivors, combined with lack of knowledge about specific items needed, spells trouble for people who are giving or collecting material donations after a disaster.
The Rev. Ruth Hotle is a United Church of Christ pastor and associate director of the Interfaith Council for Disaster Response in Kansas City, Mo., where flash floods struck six months ago. Just last week, Hotle put out a plea for extra-large size clothing and infant items such as cribs, strollers, and baby toys.
"We already have the Salvation Army lined up to store the items when we get them," she said. "One thing we learned during our response was that we can't try to be a clothes closet or food pantry when other agencies do that very well. We simply called those agencies to the table and coordinated with them."
Too often, a list of specific items needed never reaches donors -- or it reaches them too late.
"If we need soap today, by the time we get the word out, we're already beyond that need," said Linda Reed Brown, who coordinates interfaith activities through the Office of Creative Ministries in Kansas City, Mo., supported by the United Methodist Church.
Another problem is that lists often do not have enough detail, said Reed, who has been involved in disaster response for six years -- ever since the devastating Missouri floods of 1994. "We learned back then that your list of needs has got to be specific. And I mean very specific. For instance, don't just say you need paint. Do you need white paint? Porch paint?"
Reed has other examples. Don't just say you need food - say you need canned meals. Say you need canned spaghetti or ravioli.
And don't just say you need hygiene supplies - say you need toothbrushes, toothpaste, and shampoo. And don't just say toothbrushes - say new toothbrushes.
Would somebody give an old toothbrush? "After three separate floods, all federally declared disasters, had hit Missouri, we received a shoebox from an elderly woman who had paid to ship it UPS," said Reed. "There were safety pins, one new toothbrush, a couple of old toothbrushes, and some motel soap."
"More often than not, people have a sincere wish to give. If they're not told what to give, they'll give whatever they have," she said.
The Rev. Gerald Taylor, pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Byrdstown, Tenn., has his own theory about lists of needs: "Only list the items you don't think you'll get, because people give you everything else regardless -- even a bag of half-eaten Doritos in our case."
A tornado raked Taylor's farming community nearly a year ago, destroying 64 homes and damaging 124 more. "Through our (church) district newsletter, and through the newspapers, we put out a plea of needed items. Well, we were swamped. We're just a small, one-room church, and we ended up taking what was left over to a local school."
But even when needs and donations aren't exactly matched, survivors can still benefit. Taylor considers the endless sorting, packing, moving, distributing, well worth it -- because there were enough appropriate donations to really make a difference.
"We're in a poverty area to begin with," he said. "So people were unbelievably grateful and appreciative of those donations. It was small-town community effort that I don't think would work in a larger urban or suburban setting. You'd need more guidelines and more structure. I mean, it exhausted us."
Local churches and community groups don't have to be in the dark about what's needed in the wake of a disaster. Before collecting donations, they should first contact a disaster response organization, like those listed on the Disaster News Network .
Even as the gap closes between what gets donated and what's actually needed, many disaster response leaders still say: 'just send money.'
"As churches and faith groups, sometimes we're hesitant about asking for money," said Brown. "But frankly that's what we need to start doing. Then, we need to tell the story of how that money is used. That way, our groups are accountable, and the donors feel there is added credibility in what they're giving."
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