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Small group finds big niche

One small faith-based group has a big vision: building volunteer housing that makes people want to come help long after disaster strikes.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | August 21, 2006

"If we provide a base for the volunteers that's a good experience, and one that is comfortable for them, they're going to be much more valuable out in the field."

—BJ Behnken

One small faith-based group has a big vision: building volunteer housing that makes people want to come help long after disaster strikes.

With roots going back to Hurricane Andrew, Project Teamwork is now partnering with an increasing number of its fellow faith-based groups to realize this dream, little by little.

In a team effort with The Salvation Army, Project Teamwork built a Disaster Relief Volunteer Village in Biloxi, Mississippi. Plans are in the works for another partnership between Project Teamwork and Habitat for Humanity, said BJ Behnken, president of Project Teamwork.

The 14-year-old, Florida-based group began after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Behnken said she began meeting faith-based disaster responders then. "We built a Volunteer Village in Miami with The Salvation Army, then ran the village for them. We also brought in teams from all over the country, raised $10 million for Florida families in need, and built 900 homes in Miami."

And Behnken, who well knows the pace of long-term recovery, laughs when she adds: "It took a little awhile."

When Hurricane Katrina hit, a few people began asking Project Teamwork to share some of its expertise on the devastated Gulf Coast. At first, Behnken said, she hesitated. "Project Teamwork is Florida based," she explained. "I wasn't sure. There was no connection in Mississippi."

Finally, Behnken sent a team to Mississippi. The team members traveled to a Salvation Army disaster relief site. Looking back, Behnken remembers: "They welcomed us with open arms and said, 'We know all about you. Will you help us?' And it was settled with a handshake."

The connections made back in Hurricane Andrew had lasted through Hurricane Katrina, and enabled both groups to react more quickly, said Behnken. "It was really kind of neat. When our assessment team walked onto the site, the Salvation Army guy greeted them. He had worked with us in Andrew. That got us a foot in the door."

Within 48 hours, Behnken said, the two groups had hammered out a detailed agreement.

Project Teamwork built a Volunteer Village, and now operates the village as volunteer teams come and go.

Now Project Teamwork has two Volunteer Villages under its belt - one in Florida and one in Mississippi - and Behnken believes the group has found its niche. "You just kind of learn how to run a village," she said.

The Volunteer Village in Biloxi is situated in an old high school football field. "On one side, under the bleachers, the locker rooms have been turned into dorms," said Behnken. "Right under the bleachers we built what we call bayou shacks. And it's all contained underneath the bleachers. There's a cafe that serves food that The Salvation Army cooks in their kitchen trailer. All of our people sleep inside."

Behnken believes that if volunteers have a comfortable bed, hot showers and good meals, they will be more ready to work during their stay - and even more ready to return a second time. "If there is a base for the volunteers that's a good experience, and one that is comfortable for them, they're going to be much more valuable out in the field," said Behnken.

"Our Volunteer Villages provide comfortable beds and hot showers. They are air conditioned. We do activities. There are three wonderful meals a day," said Behnken.

The philosophy is that, while volunteers are serving others, Project Teamwork serves the volunteers. "We treat them like we want to serve them so they can go out and serve others," said Behnken.

There might be a third Volunteer Village in Mississippi. "Habitat for Humanity has a commitment to build 500 new homes but no place for the volunteers to stay. They have asked us to consider taking over that as well," said Behnken.

Project Teamwork is a non-denominational faith-based group. Volunteer groups are welcome to register for space in the Volunteer Village, however, Project Teamwork does not work with individuals. "When an individual calls, we send them to Habitat."

Groups can register with Project Teamwork by visiting the Web site and filling out an application. "We don't take anybody under 16," said Behnken. "If it's a youth group, there has to be a 4-to-1 ratio with counselors. And if you're totally unskilled you have to bring a couple of skilled people with you."

Like other faith-based and voluntary groups, Project Teamwork has had to learn to say 'no,' to some well-meaning volunteers. "We had one group come - all middle school kids - with no skilled people. They're eager. They want to do good," said Behnken. "In Miami, we started offering leadership training classes for organizations, training them on when to say no. We've had to do that."

Project Teamwork is small compared with its big sister organizations in the field, Behnken acknowledges, but she believes she's found a valuable skill. "Why don't we all pick our niche? That's the kind of direction I'm headed. I would like to do this all over."

Click on the link to the Project Teamwork Web site below for more information or to register your group.

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