Finished shopping yet?

One might expect the number of disaster recovery volunteers to dwindle around the holiday season - but that's hardly the case down in Mississippi.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | December 12, 2005

"People are kind of sick of the materialism and consumerism."

—Brad Fair

One might expect the number of disaster recovery volunteers to dwindle around the holiday season - but that's hardly the case down in Mississippi.

The four Volunteer Villages of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) are full over the Christmas holiday. "We didn't really expect it - it's just one of those blessings," said Pamela Burdine, PDA's associate for communications.

The villages are tent cities set up to house volunteers for the Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery across southern Mississippi. They can accommodate up to 120 people each.

Spending one's holiday and vacation time helping those in need is just one different way of giving this holiday season. Many Christian denominations are again offering alternative gift ideas via guides and bulletin inserts so that people can buy items in honor of others.

"I think it's something that people always look for - a way to give to others," said Burdine. Common gifts among the catalogs include blankets for international refugees and animals to provide a family with income. For PDA, another way to give this season is to donate to their "disaster trailers."

Burdine said over PDA's many years of disaster relief work, the agency has discovered that having the needed rebuild tools already available for volunteers on-site makes the job much easier. "We know that tools are needed and if we have the trailers with tools available at the site, then the volunteers don't have to figure out how to bring their own tools," she explained. Each equipped trailer costs roughly $12,000, and several are already on hand at the Mississippi Volunteer Villages.

PDA's alternative gift guide also allows donors to purchase shelter kits for refugees, goats for a family in Malawi, and blankets for people around the world.

The alternative gift possibilities run the gamut amongst the guides offered by various denominations. Some guides offer gifts that range in price from $10 to $25,000.

"Our highest priced item is $25,000 for a disaster response truck," said Kristen DeRoo-Vanderberg, communications coordinator for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). "But we try to have a range of objects in the catalog to show the full scope of things we're involved in, and so that if kids want to save their allowance, there are cheaper items."

CRWRC's 2005 gift catalog has items from A-Z this year, and DeRoo-Vanderberg said the agency sees enough interest every year to keep offering the alternative gifts.

"I think it's important for people to have this option because it helps get away from the consumerism of Christmas and get back to sharing Christ's love with others," she said. "And it's important for us, it helps us continue our ministry."

The most popular gifts this year are disaster response tools, a water pump for families in Malawi, and - of course - goats. "People always like the goats," she laughed.

Not into the idea of buying goats on someone's behalf? How about sending someone to disaster response school?

That's just what Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is offering this season. A donation can help fund a student in the two-year Disaster Management Program at Kansas' Hesston College.

"One of the things holding us back is the lack of trained site managers," said Larry Guengerich, interim communications coordinator for MDS. "We have hundreds of volunteers that want to come help rebuild, but we need site managers who can be there week in and week out."

The program includes intensive experience on MDS job sites for the students. Guengerich added that graduates of the program don't have to work for MDS, as many other organizations could use the trained workers as well. "It's a hugely important thing to know how to manage sites and volunteers."

Don't want to send an adult to school? How about sending a child who's survived a disaster to Camp Noah? Through Lutheran Disaster Response's holiday gift bulletin, donors can help fund a child's week-long journey through the camp that helps children cope with the hardships of disasters. According to the bulletin, the price of sending one child through the camp is $250.

From the United Methodist Committee on Relief to the Mennonite Central Committee to the United Church of Christ - all agreed that the gift guides offered are just another way for people to give back during a season often overrun with "Buy! Buy! Buy!"

"People are really kind of sick of the materialism and consumerism of Christmas," said Brad Fair, resource network assistant for Mennonite Central Committee. "They realize that there's such a need at this time of year. They want to be sure their purchase and gift make a difference."

Some families are even choosing to forgo their own Christmas presents and instead pool their money for the major gifts offered in the guides.

And for many, giving differently this time of year is a reassurance that there is some good in the world.

"It's important to know that even though we live in a society now where people often think the worst of each other - there are people who have other's interests at heart," said Phyllis Richard, program associate for the United Church of Christ (UCC) and co-writer of the UCC's 2005 gift guide.

2005 Holiday Gift Guides

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee

Church of the Brethren

Episcopal Relief and Development

Lutheran Disaster Response (PDF)

Interchurch Medical Assistance

Mennonite Central Committee

Mennonite Disaster Service

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

United Church of Christ

United Methodist Committee on Relief

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