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Volunteer Villages attract many

The Volunteer Villages of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance are proving very popular.

BY HEATHER MOYER | GAUTIER, Miss. | November 9, 2006

The Volunteer Villages of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance are proving very popular, a fact which is evident in just how many work teams traveled to the Gulf Coast last month.

"54 teams went down in October," said Pamela Burdine, associate for communications with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). "Some were thinking that's not much - but when compared to the number of teams gone to other disaster sites in the past, it is. Florida had that many teams come down in an entire year."

And that's a lesson learned for the disaster relief agency, said PDA Associate for Disaster Response John Robinson. He said setting up the villages was one of the best decisions the agency made in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"We made the decision very quickly to create these villages and I'm very glad we did. As much of a challenge as it was to first get everything up and running and smoothed out, it would have been much more difficult for us had we not - in way of us being on the ground from the beginning, I mean. It was a very smart choice."

PDA has five Volunteer Villages set up along the Gulf Coast, with three in Mississippi and two in Louisiana. The sites provide housing and food for volunteer work teams spending time - typically a week - in the areas devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The local long-term recovery organizations provide the work orders for the teams each week so there is no overlap in work, said Burdine, and so that those in the most need are done in order of priority.

Volunteer teams continue to stream in, with many coming back multiple times as churches make regular trips to the Gulf Coast for disaster recovery part of their overall mission. Robinson said the return rate success is based on the hospitality provided at the camps, that helping volunteers feel comfortable and useful is essential in making the experience positive.

"Part of what we've learned in the past year is that what we were responding to was the desire of volunteers to be immediately useful," Robinson explained. "There's been a connection between the ability of the villages to solve the many logistical problems of work teams and getting them into the community quickly. We're not running the recovery, we're just doing the hospitality. We are facilitating the connection of the volunteer teams to the local groups and people."

That connection doesn't just apply to the short-term volunteers, either.

"The first time I was down here, I knew I'd be coming back because I'd left my heart here," said Phyllis Wright, the manager of the Volunteer Village in Gautier, Miss.

Wright is now on her third long-term volunteer term as village manager in Gautier. A retired office worker from Portland, Ore., Wright said when she first heard about the opportunity to do such work via another church group in Oregon, she knew she had to learn more. "I made arrangements to come down last December and I helped set up the village in Gautier," she explained. "From then on I had a vested interest. I've enjoyed the contact I've had with the community."

Her terms usually last two to three months and she is responsible for the day-to-day management of the camp while on site. Wright said she does everything from finding the right tools for specific jobs to managing food inventory to visiting the volunteers and clients at the work sites. It's a little bit of everything, she laughed. And as hectic as the work can become at times, Wright said she can't imagine herself doing anything else.

"This is a fit for me and it has become my life," she said. "I really enjoy being here."

For Jaymie Hernandez, volunteering at a PDA Volunteer Village for the long-term is a wonderful change from her previous more solitary work as a social worker. "I wanted to be part of a community that was serving," said Hernandez, manager of the village in Houma, La. "It's nice to be able to serve in a community as opposed to being on your own. It's incredible to be in a place where you're witnessing a constant stream of people who are so giving."

Hernandez is serving as the village manager in Houma for a year as part of the Young Adult Volunteer program through the Presbyterian Church (USA). Volunteers working in Houma help residents affected by Hurricane Rita. Hernandez said she sees the connection amongst the community and volunteers all the time, and that's one of the best parts of the job.

"I enjoy watching them connect with the issues down here and with the people. Any time you sit in on devotions and you can hear them talking about the homeowner they met or spoke with. Or maybe they mention painting a child's room and seeing the kid's face light up. Watching the volunteers just get it and become passionate about it, they connect with so many things. I love watching them take it with them. It's a very intense sense of community."

She sees it from the community as well. Some residents prepare dinner for the volunteers, others do presentations on the area's history and still others take out volunteer teams to learn the local Cajun dances on Friday nights.

These positive results have PDA committed to the long-term recovery of the Gulf and to creating more villages, said Robinson. He added that another Volunteer Village was created in the Sidney, N.Y., area to respond to summer floods. The model is successful and will be utilized more, he said.

"We also have two villages in storage so that if there's a major event, we can quickly move those pods out into a village situation. We're also doing some training to develop a capacity for that kind of response, so the village will roll out with management then. This is a new direction for us and we are committed to it."

There is still plenty of room for volunteers at the sites in Louisiana and Mississippi, too - especially for skilled volunteers as the recovery process moves into the rebuild phase. Yet all volunteers are welcome, a notion Hernandez emphasizes each week when she meets a new set of volunteers.

"In our orientations, one of the things we tell the volunteers is that every person on their team has a gift," Hernandez explained. "We tell them to be aware of that and that they should not limit themselves. Everyone has a gift. And saying that to them at first and then seeing it confirmed every week is very incredible."

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