On disasters and being a neighbor

disclaimer: There is a lot of content packed into this post. The theme of being a neighbor is one I’ll come back to this year.

PDA

(not *public display of affection*)

In our case, PDA is Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Because Ferncliff has such a close relationship with PDA, it has been an ever-present part of our year here. Two members of the PDA National Response Team have been training the Little Rock YAVs in how to serve and act when in a disaster-afflicted area. A lot of what we learned in the training sessions was centered on how to be a neighbor to those we meet. Because every person is unique, there is no exact equation or recipe on how to be a neighbor. Being a neighbor, we concluded, means being present and being compassionate.

These sessions led up to a week-long PDA deployment with other members of the National Response Team and seasoned PDA volunteers. Clad in PDA’s blue t-shirts and armed with paint brushes and various tools, our team headed to a neighborhood that flooded in August 2016. The entire week, I worked in Tonya’s home where she has been living in a single, unfinished room of the house. Transitional living in response to this flooding was often a shelter in place situation, meaning families would live in part of their home while it was being rebuilt.

After several feet of water poured into their homes, residents like Tonya were at a loss about how to go about putting their lives back together. Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge is a local non-profit that grew to fill the need of rebuilding homes like Tonya’s. With the aid of volunteer groups like ours, AmeriCorps teams, and other residents who volunteer after their own home has been rebuilt, Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge is able to live up to its name. In Tonya’s neighborhood, our PDA team worked on projects of every magnitude in at least five homes.

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Tonya and the team

DAC

Disaster relief is part of the Ferncliff culture. It was not just a single week in Baton Rouge.

On the north end of camp is the Disaster Assistance Center (DAC), a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. There you’ll find upwards of 23,000 kits that have been donated and will be repacked for distribution in areas affected by natural and man-made disasters. In partnership with Church World Service, the DAC is one of two warehouses in the nation where congregations, secular groups, and other organizations can send supplies for hygiene kits, clean-up buckets, and school kits. Annually, at least fifty volunteer groups come help out at the DAC. They inspect and repack all donated kits to maintain consistency and quality control before supplies can be prepared for distribution. Katie’s YAV position is centered around the DAC and PDA. She spends time each day receipting boxes of donated supplies as they arrive, directing all of the volunteer groups in the DAC, and working in conjunction with PDA’s national response team members. Additionally, Ferncliff was home to the PDA call center before the office started operating remotely just last year.

With the capacity to store and receive large shipments, the warehouse allows Ferncliff to accept donations that smaller community organizations would not have the ability to access. Because of this, the previous Executive Director now fills a part time role in expanding Ferncliff’s relationship with Good360 to become a redistribution partner for the greater Little Rock community. The DAC  and Ferncliff are a part of a “circle of good” that helps to increase the positive impact of community partners.

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DIP

This year Katie has done some awesome things with DAC programming and it has been exciting to help her out. Most recently is the Disaster Immersion Program (DIP) that is a fun and interactive weekend experience for youth groups to explore how to prepare for a disaster as well as how to be a neighbor to those that have experienced one. A local Presbyterian youth group agreed to be our pilot group and it went very well.

In order to simulate some of the distress survivors have experienced, we woke the youth up with a siren early on Saturday morning and they had to start the day without any preparation. It was very important to maintain a balance of keeping all of the participants safe while encouraging them to expand their comfort zone. For example, there was no designated breakfast time that morning but every person got a granola bar and teams had to complete a scavenger hunt to locate fruit, muffins, and bagels around camp.

Other sessions during the weekend included: games, team-building activities, putting together disaster preparedness packets, solving puzzles, scavenger hunts, assembling kits in the DAC, setting group goals, time for individual reflection, preparing meals together, and more. We want to develop education through exploration which means giving them the tools to reach their own conclusions. At the end of the weekend, we had a quiet evening of reflection at the labyrinth to consider healing and how to move forward.

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Escape Room

Alrighty, I am out of three-letter acronyms.

Another part of program expansion has been the creation of the DAC Escape Room called Master of Disaster. Designed for nearly any type of group, it is a fun introduction to what role the DAC plays in responding to disasters. Like other escape rooms, Master of Disaster is an interactive problem-solving and team-building experience but with the addition of volunteer service and education. The scenario guides groups through assembling donated kits and exploring infographics posted in the DAC while they locate clues and solve puzzles. Creating an escape room was such an incredible project to head that I’m working towards creating another one in the Eco Center.

Postscript:

The day we were scheduled to drive back to Ferncliff from Baton Rouge, a wind storm left dozens of massive trees downed all around camp. Our power was out. All of the out buildings at the farm were swept away, including the tool shed, the feed sheds, the sheep house, and the garden gazebo. The rabbit enclosure was rolled around and all of the animals were pretty shaken up. Normally peaceful and healing, parts of camp seemed broken. While we knew the buildings and shingles could be easily replaced, the trees will not regrown but new saplings will find a home in our woods. We are thankful to have our own neighbors to help us as we continue to rebuild.

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