After The Storm: A Disaster Relief Volunteer Reflection

After The Storm: A Disaster Relief Volunteer Reflection

On April 16, 2011, Sandi, our esteemed Board Treasurer, and I joined other nonprofits and community members at the Raleigh Volunteer Fair to celebrate and promote the volunteer spirit. We had no idea that 15 minutes before the end of the Fair we’d be asked to head down to the building’s basement and take cover: A tornado was coming. Nonprofits and Fair attendees hurried to gather their things. The sky had turned dark outside the large windows in the Wake County Commons Building, adding to a sense of urgency to band together.

Sandi bundled up our things and joined the trail of people heading out the door toward the steps to the basement. I wasn’t far behind, adjusting my grip on our presentation board laden with past pictures of our own smiling volunteers.

As I walked ahead of a few of the Fair attendees, I looked back at one and remarked, “We’re lucky.” He raised a quizzical brow at me, so I quickly clarified: “This is probably the best group of people possible to get stuck with in a situation like this: Nonprofit leaders and public servants; people out there all the time helping our community.”

After a thoughtful pause, he nodded and replied: “You know, I never thought about it like that – you’re right.”

In the basement with all of us packed in, anxiety was a quiet, but present force. Discussions were held in low voices for roughly a half an hour until a woman announced to us in an authoritative voice, “It’s okay for you all to get into your cars and drive home.” We all started to get up, and she added, “Drive carefully–But drive home fast.”
I did. Though I couldn’t see it, and didn’t know what it looked like, I knew the tornado existed. It was out there, coming our way.

A ‘Tornado’ of Volunteers

After a nerve-wracking 25-minute drive home, I mentally regrouped, sitting at my computer screen and staring at the monitor. Outside my window, the sky was starting to clear up. It would only be a matter of time, I realized, before the news would start offering up the first reports of casualties and damages suffered; before needs would start pouring in.

Sure enough, by the evening of that Saturday, April 16, calls for community action were sent out in a flurry. “We need Registered Nurses over here!” called the Red Cross. “We’re short on food donations!” announced the Raleigh Rescue Mission and the Food Bank.

“Trained shelter volunteers are needed at this address!

“Hundreds of volunteers needed to help clear debris from this street!

“We’re collecting furniture and clothing donations!

Request after request for assistance appeared on the news, the radio, on a number of websites. Twitter and Facebook exploded with announcements and commentary about tornado relief needs. Surely, it should have been enough to overwhelm any community

But this tornado, a worthy adversary bent on destroying homes and lives, did not foresee another storm that would follow in its wake: A storm of support. The community’s response was overwhelming and amazing. Community members of all backgrounds came forward from everywhere to band together to help, lending their support as donors, caregivers, and volunteers. They brought their friends, their skills, their co-workers, and their compassion.

Activate Good was thrilled to play a part, connecting those we could to requests coming in every hour and helping dispatch volunteers to the local nonprofits with needs. Over the course of the week after the tornado struck Raleigh, Activate Good alerted our networks to over 50 unique volunteer needs, tracking requests from the City of Raleigh, Wake County Human Services, and a number of our nonprofit partners. We sent community members, excited to lend a hand, to help clean up debris at the Boys & Girls Club of Raleigh and designated locations around the city, and to assist at shelters open for tornado victims. We were in awe of the enthusiasm of local restaurants like Smithfield Chicken N’ BBQ, who we matched to one of our nonprofit partners, the Raleigh Rescue Mission, in order to help feed over 50 homeless community members impacted by the storm. On Saturday, April 23, a week after the tornado, we were inspired again by the nearly 40 volunteers who came out to volunteer with us at Stony Brook Mobile Home Park to sort donations for tornado victims and cheer up over 80 resident kids whose homes had been destroyed. And in the weeks that followed, we were glad to work alongside the City of Raleigh, Wake County, and NC Baptist Men to help recruit and dispatch over 80 more volunteers out to damaged sites to assist with removing debris from the streets.

The Activate Good Spirit

It has been over a month now, since the tornado came and went, and since the wave of volunteerism and community support flooded in for those affected. As those in the community begin to try to return to their normal lives, we are left with a powerful image in our minds of the outpouring of volunteer action we witnessed.

Now, picture this: A community where this sort of volunteer action is commonplace. Where volunteers, schools, companies, clubs and nonprofits can all come together with such vigor to tackle our community’s ongoing needs; where every one realizes that no matter what they have to give, anybody can be somebody’s hero. This past April, our community proved this vision wasn’t a pipe dream: It can be a reality. We’ve seen it. And now that we’ve had a taste of it, we’re more committed than ever to do what we can to make it a part of our every day reality.

So I know I’m hoping for another tornado–A tornado of volunteers. Whirring through our community, spreading good will, and repairing homes and lives in its wake. A tornado that changes the very landscape of our community into one in which volunteering and helping others is always on the horizon, and good causes working hard to serve our community always have the help they need.

This is the Activate Good vision.