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Voluntary groups hone vision

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood's heart is with local disaster survivors even as he focuses on the challenges facing national disaster response organizations.

BY SUSAN KIM | RALEIGH, N.C. | May 12, 2006

"What thrills me is just the fact that we are seeing so much more collaboration with everybody."

—Sherry Buresh

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood's heart is with local disaster survivors even as he focuses on the challenges facing national disaster response organizations.

Hazelwood took the helm Thursday as the new board president of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD).

National VOAD coordinates planning efforts by many voluntary organizations responding to disasters. The hope is that VOAD member organizations provide more effective and less duplication in service by getting together before disasters strike.

National VOAD began in 1970, when representatives of seven voluntary organizations came together. Today, there are 41 National VOAD members and state-level VOADs are in place across the nation.

Hazelwood, who is also executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, said as he leads National VOAD into its next era, he will always keep the local disaster survivor in mind.

"If I were given a choice - if I could do what I wanted to do - I would be part of a work team in the field, mucking out a house and cleaning the debris because that's where my heart is. I could engage in that day-to-day ministry with people and families," he reflected.

But that's not the path his journey has taken. "I'm a bureaucrat," he said. "That's what comes with the job. You have to know what it is you're expected to do."

As National VOAD leaders continue to define their vision, Hazelwood acknowledged that mission statements are not always the most glamorous work - but they are important.

"When we were talking about the mission statement and the vision statement, the conversation was going back and forth about how an organizational leader should be able to say their mission statement between the first floor and the 20th floor of an elevator. Then we decided you should be able to say it between the first floor and the third floor. The truth is - I would just rather listen to the elevator music. These things are not what excite me. But they're also a necessary part of who we are as an organization."

Nearly 500 people from 41 states, Canada, Korea and Japan gathered this week in Raleigh, N.C., for National VOAD's 14th annual conference.

Field responders reported that being part of the VOAD movement gives them an opportunity to network on a national level. "What thrills me is just the fact that we are seeing so much more collaboration with everybody," said Sherry Buresh, assistant director of the Christian Appalachian Project's disaster service program. Buresh also chairs the Eastern Kentucky Long-Term Recovery Coordinating Committee. "It's not just each unit out there by itself. This is so exciting."

The National VOAD conference allows responders to exchange ideas and take them back to the state and local levels, added Jeannie Lecklider, planner/voluntary agency liaison with the Texas Division of Emergency Management. "I will translate to the state level VOAD some of the knowledge I've gathered here."

At next year's conference, Lecklider and other state-level responders are planning to convene more formally to strengthen state-to-state networking and partnerships.

Conference workshops covered topics ranging from spiritual care to long-term recovery to caring for animals. "It's a lot of information," said Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Heriberto Martinez. "I will be taking this back to the long-term recovery groups and the community organization I work with so closely."

Hazelwood estimated that 80 to 90 percent of conference participants are people who work out in the field.

The voluntary disaster response community is far more knowledgeable and prepared than it was even five years ago, he said. "We know more than we've ever known before about how to respond to disasters. We learn from our mistakes and we learn from our successes."

Hazelwood wants National VOAD to continue to grow. "We have 11 organizations waiting right now to become members. In a period of 2 years, we will have grown by a third. That's something for us to be proud of," he said.

He shared two goals with National VOAD members. "Both these goals revolve around communication and relationships. My first goal is to make sure I am in contact in some way with all of the members of National VOAD on a regular basis. You can expect a note or a missive from me as the board president at least once a month. There will be something that will come to you from me that tells you what the board is doing, what National VOAD is doing. It's important for me to be connected to all the organizations."

Hazelwood's second goal is to connect to National VOAD member organizations at their highest levels. "I want to find a way to make the connection to the top because if we can have that support and that connection, it will make National VOAD stronger. The goal is for us to make this organization strong, to make it grow."

But as that growth unfolds, Hazelwood reiterated where his true focus remains. "My heart is back with those people in the field working with the families whose lives have been torn apart by disaster."

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