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'Neighbor helping neighbor'

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW WINDSOR, MD | September 13, 2001

"There will be a long-term need for emotional and psychological counseling."

—Ellis Wykstra

A significant part of response to last Tuesday's tragic events will come down to "neighbor helping neighbor," according to response leaders.

This tragedy is new ground for the disaster response community, said Ellis Wykstra, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster response facilitator who is serving as lead communications person for CWS's activities in the wake of the attacks.

"This is a disaster that presents problems totally unfamiliar to people used to normal disaster response," said Wykstra. "The disaster sites are confined to relatively small areas and piles of rubble. It's not like a tornado that rips a 20-mile swath through an area."

That means, Wykstra, said that there is a limited need for volunteers outside of professionals when it comes to disaster site cleanup. "There are limited opportunities for people to do something onsite."

Other response officials are more blunt with the message: Don't show up near the disaster sites spontaneously offering to volunteer. It hampers the work that's going on. "People might be apt to do that because the media portrayal of this disaster makes it seem like everybody's involved," said Wykstra. "In fact, that's not the case."

The quiet rural town of New Windsor, MD -- about two hours from the nation's Capitol -- has become, for the time being, home to a satellite office for the New York City-based CWS emergency response program. CWS staff and trained volunteers are operating out of the Church of the Brethren conference center there.

Wykstra is keeping what he calls "a vigil" as he handles communications for CWS's nationwide network of responders. As the FBI pursues countless leads for suspects, Wykstra pursues countless leads for ways to help people traumatized by the attacks.

Response is still in the emergency phase -- with search-and-rescue teams still working around the clock -- but even that response is changing, pointed out Wykstra. "At this point, if people are alive, most are able to receive the medical attention they need."

Exhausted search-and-rescue crews are starting to need medical attention themselves, said Wykstra.

"Workers are getting treated for exhaustion and dehydration."

Where can the faith community best focus its response? On the emotional side of things, said Wykstra. "There will be a long-term need for emotional and psychological counseling."

And the hub of that will be in local churches, he said. "Local church involvement will be more important here than in any disaster this nation has experienced. We need local people to take on the response as opposed to sending in a lot of people."

Already, there is a need for churches to lead peacemaking efforts in local communities, reported the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Neville McDonald, a native of India who works in the MCC human resources department, said he has received angry looks and a vulgar gesture in the small Pennsylvania town where he lives.

"I've seen this before in the disputes among religious groups in my country," he said. "People are so hurt and angry. You can see the suspicion in their eyes."

Dealing with such deep-set hurt and anger means offering mental health and spiritual support for the long haul, added Wykstra. "A lot of people's emotions haven't even surfaced," he said.

Some opportunities are already arising for individuals who want to express their sorrow and unity.

Via e-mail and listservs, plans for a candlelight vigil are taking shape. On Friday night at 7 p.m., people are invited to step outside their doors, stop their cars, step out of restaurants and businesses to light a candle. The e-mail message reads: "We will show the world that Americans are strong and united together against terrorism. Please pass this to everyone on your e-mail list. We need to reach everyone across the United States quickly."

Disaster News Network received so many copies of this e-mail from so many organizations that determining the origin is difficult. But people across the world have indicated their intent to participate.

People across the country are also hanging American flags at half-mast. President Bush has declared tomorrow a national day of prayer and remembrance.

Long-term support and mental health will be the focus of CWS's response, said Wykstra, and the organization has issued an emergency appeal for contributions to help fund these efforts. Already, CWS has mobilized its network of volunteer disaster consultants for pastoral care work. The organization is in the process of matching trained denominational disaster response teams with communities in need.

Church of the Brethren Child Care Aviation Incident Response (CARE) teams have already traveled to sites across the U.S. to provide childcare and emotional support to children of the families and victims of the aviation disasters.

In addition, CWS has an existing local network of interfaith committees -- organized in response to past disasters -- that area already supporting communities across the nation with pastoral care and long-term recovery activities.

CWS also plans to provide training in pastoral care.

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