VINTON–Lynn Haven Baptist Church in Vinton has become a way station for volunteers from the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) organization traveling to the northeast to assist victims of recent Hurricane Sandy.
On November 17, two groups shared the church’s facilities at once—one group from Alabama on their way home after a week on Staten Island, a second group heading north to take their place. The trip from Alabama to New York takes 19-20 hours, so a stop along the way is welcomed.
The SBDR has a list of churches and other facilities equipped to provide housing and showers for the volunteers in route. Lynn Haven is identified as one in the Roanoke area.
William Letlow was the coordinator for the group of seven men and three women who had just spent a week in New York in one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy. His group was comprised of 10 volunteers from across Alabama, trained by the SBDR to respond to natural disasters, and deployed to serve various needs. Their team was activated three weeks after the hurricane struck, after initial assessments of damage were complete, and clean up was underway.
SBDR volunteers generally stay on alert when the possibility of a catastrophic weather event is in the forecast, notify their association coordinator of their availability, and remain on standby until their particular skills are needed.
Some crews operated chain saws; some were Clean-up Recovery and “Mudout” crews who shoveled mud, tore out sheet rock, and decontaminated flooded homes.
Other team members were trained as chaplains to minister to spiritual needs, not just of victims, but of the teams themselves who encounter very stressful and emotion-packed situations.
Others worked in Mass Feeding kitchen units to provide hot meals for hurricane victims. Some were trained in child care in order to care for children while their parents dealt with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and insurance agencies. Some were schooled in administration and recordkeeping.
Most of the volunteers are retired, although some with this group were still employed and took vacation from work for the mission. Most initially felt a call to the mission when disaster relief classes were offered in their local church associations.
On this team, Letlow’s employment background is in County maintenance work; Carroll Owens worked in a County Commissioner’s tax office; Ruth Coggins is a registered nurse and taught high school; Lorraine Brown works at a bank; Andy Ettinger owns his own HVAC business and is an EMT and volunteer firefighter.
Most had been deployed on humanitarian disaster relief missions before with the SBDR. All have taken the required classes and received clearance from Homeland Security to assist in disaster areas. In fact, team members wear bar coded security badges which identify them to the National Guard and other security personnel responsible for deterring looting at the sites.
Most had been involved in clean up in their own state after devastating tornadoes struck Alabama in April of 2011. Several in this group had volunteered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
SBDR volunteers are trained by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. After the prerequisite course, “Introduction to Disaster Relief”, volunteers are able to sign up for specialized classes, including Mass Feeding, Communications, Chainsaaw Operation and Safety, Rebuild, Shower/Laundry, Administration, Chaplaincy, Damage Assessment, Site Security, Childcare, Flood Recovery (Mudout), and Water Purification.
“The SBDR will train you,” said Coggins. “Through God, you can do more than you think you can do.”
The group traveled to New York in two vehicles, one pulling a trailer with clean-up equipment like chainsaws to assist in the recovery efforts; the other an extended bed pick-up truck carrying more volunteers and their minimal belongings.
Paul McDaniel and Terry Gordon from Lynn Haven Baptist greeted the volunteers, helped them settle in for the night—men in the gym, ladies in smaller Sunday School classrooms—pointed out the shower area, and recommended local restaurants for dinner.
The next morning they returned to see the volunteers off for the remainder of their journey either north or south. McDaniel himself has assisted in over 15 disasters, including Grenada and Katrina. He is also involved in lining up disaster relief crews and coordinates efforts throughout the entire region.
“We get a better blessing than the people we help,” said McDaniel.
Volunteers carry sleeping bags, cots, and air mattresses with them and usually stay in churches or schools once they reach the disaster area. Letlow’s group had been housed in New Dorp Moravian Protestant Church on Staten Island in the midst of the disaster area.
Volunteers carry only a few personal items with them, limited to medications, toiletries, tools, and a few sets of clothing. They generally are able to launder clothes in mobile Shower/Laundry units which have been moved to the site for the use of victims. When they are deployed, they know in advance how long they will be gone and plan accordingly.
By arriving three weeks after the storm hit, this group of volunteers encountered victims who were over the initial shock of their losses.
“Most people we encountered were more thankful for what they had left, than mourning what they had lost,” said Coggins.
“Most people are resilient,” said Letlow. “Neighborhoods pull together and help one another. You do what you have to do in situations like that.”
While the SBDR volunteers are onsite to deal with the physical travesties of the disaster, they consider their mission to be primarily spiritual in nature.
“Our main goal is to witness and minister,” said Letlow. “’To give a cup of water in Jesus’ name’ is our motto.”
The SBDR volunteers are careful not to force their beliefs on anyone. “We generally ask ‘Is it okay to pray with you’,” said Brown. “You never know when you might find a ministry opportunity.”
In the midst of disaster, they encountered few who were resentful of what had occurred.
“The locals were very thankful for our help,” said Brown. “We would get the thumbs up sign as we drove past them going down the road.”
At the site, the SBDR group worked in tandem with other relief agencies, primarily the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, in addition to FEMA. The SBDR organization is the third largest disaster relief agency in the nation.
After years in operation, relief efforts have become highly organized and efficient. In most cases the Red Cross purchases the groceries; SBDR cooks the meals in mobile mass feeding units (tractor trailers), and the Red Cross distributes them. Meals generally consist of something like a chicken patty, mixed vegetables, a slice of bread, a cup of water, and a fruit cup.
All of the volunteers and coordinators urge others to get involved in the process, whether as volunteers themselves or by donating to the cause at www.namb.net/dr/ . In early 2013 disaster relief training will be offered in the Roanoke area.
“It gets in your blood,” said Letlow. “You receive a blessing doing the work and you’re ready to go back the next chance you get.”
Lynn Haven Baptist is delighted to serve those who are serving others.
“God has blessed our church with an incredible facility and we are using it for His glory,” said Dr. Michael Wrye, Senior Pastor at Lynn Haven Baptist.