Rural Helping: Trusted, Organized and Flexible

Kathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Kathleen Belanger

Many rural communities face difficulties accessing and then using outside assistance, not only during a disaster, but also in times of economic stress, and when government or private philanthropy wants to assist. However, the key to being able to use funds creatively, effectively and efficiently is to have a local or regional non-profit agency with a broad mission, which is connected to the community’s entire infrastructure (private, public, and faith), and is flexible, organized and trusted and therefore able to do whatever is needed to truly help those in need. The following is an example of how one community was able to respond in a terrible crisis because they had such an organization.

In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina loomed, many evacuees found their way to welcoming rural communities like my town of Nacogdoches, Tex. (pop. 30,000). A Red Cross shelter was opened for them in the city recreation center, providing temporary shelter and food.

On August 30th, the day after Katrina slammed into New Orleans, the levees were breached and 80 percent of the city flooded. Nacogdoches, with its one part-time Red Cross worker, opened two new shelters in churches, staffed totally with volunteers, and welcomed 300 more New Orleans’ evacuees who had experienced desperate conditions in the Astrodome as well as the sweltering outdoors. They had received some food and a brief medical triage, but arrived with almost no possessions. Many had been separated during the rescue from their families, including small children.

Then on September 21st, more areas in Texas and Louisiana were asked to evacuate with the approach of Hurricane Rita. This time instead of hundreds, more than 3,000 evacuees came to Nacogdoches, forcing the opening of seven shelters, some with no training or certification. There was no other choice. Rita made landfall and forced its way inland more than 100 miles, hitting Nacogdoches with Category 1 force. Now with 3,000 evacuees, Nacogdoches had no power, and no gasoline to fill tanks to return people home or get supplies.

The people in Nacogdoches are probably like many other rural people. They opened their hearts, their homes, their kitchens and their pocketbooks. But, in doing so, they had to determine what their guests needed; how to get those needs met; how to make sure that donations of time, goods and funds reached the people in need as efficiently and effectively as possible; and what to do with the help offered by state and national organizations. The Red Cross and its local volunteers provided food and shelter, but the needs of evacuees are much more substantial. Federal and state health and social service agencies could help within their own mission, and while some policies could be temporarily suspended, they often still had regulations, applications, qualifications, waiting periods and limited staff.

Nacogdoches, however, had an asset that many communities may not have. In September of 1999 Love, in the Name of Christ of Nacogdoches, Texas (Love INC) had opened its doors with the expressed purpose of linking people in need with people within churches who wanted to help their neighbors. The first need, beyond food and shelter, was to find and reunite children and families. There is no “safety net” designed to do this. We organized a phone bank (at volunteers’ expense) for evacuees to try to contact relatives. We also worked out of a church office night and day to call other shelters, hospitals and other human service providers in other locations. We found one child in a hospital in Louisiana, and a businessman with contacts arranged to transport the child. Another child was found in a shelter in rural Arkansas, and personal contacts with state agency staff of one organization allowed us to “bend” numerous rules to bring the child to his family. The church itself paid the substantial long-distance charges, including calls to Asia to find an elderly woman’s only son.

Simultaneously, the local volunteers needed to understand who was living in the shelters to determine their immediate needs and any possible dangers. The Red Cross is designed to provide only emergency shelter until people can get back home, but both hurricanes were so devastating that many of those sheltered would not be able to go back home for months. The staff and volunteers of Love INC were experienced in open assessment, in listening for possibilities, rather than listening for needs related to a specific service. In addition, Love INC had ties to the local university’s School of Social Work (where I am a professor). We were able to open small offices in local shelters for quiet listening sessions that helped identify people who were in danger from abuse from a relative in the shelter, or in serious medical need previously not disclosed for fear of being separated from family members. We also were able to determine youths from warring gangs that needed to be in separate shelters.

Even more importantly, we helped evacuees envision where they might want to go and give them the means to get there, in a way that preserved their dignity and assured them that someone cared. One evacuee, whose trade was window washing in high-rise apartments, had hoped to stay in Nacogdoches long term, but when he realized the only “high rise” buildings in the city were a few university buildings, he contacted his big-city cousins, and we provided the transportation to get there. We helped a young woman locate her mother, whom she hadn’t talked to in 10 years, and she left the next day armed with a bag lunch and an anonymous donor’s cash gift. A single mother with five children was given the means to travel to her sister, several hundred miles away, as well as clothes and toys, snacks, and enough money for several days on the road.

Practical, holistic, strength-based helping that capitalizes on local assets requires organizations that are community-based, flexible, connected, and trusted because ultimately it is people connected to other people.

In addition, Love INC’s efforts were efficient and effective. The one paid full-time and half-time staff persons trained volunteers to accurately assess and verify requests and to determine the actual vs. expressed needs of each person. The organization was flexible—there were no regulations or limits to the kind of helping or to the resources it could provide. The collaborative relationships with state and local social services, with churches, and the community as a whole along with the positive outcomes resulted in trust. If the director explained exactly what help was needed, most often someone would provide it with no questions; people are happy to help when they can see the results.

Organizations like Love INC or Family and Community Resource Centers with similar missions and reputations need our support, expertise, understanding and help in organizing their own “safety net” in order to survive. With structure and quality administration, they are an excellent channel for public and philanthropic investment. In future articles, I will suggest ways to help them, and ways to minimize harm when channeling funds through them to rural communities.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.


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