Volunteering to help after major disasters

Whenever a disaster strikes, thousands of people start contacting various organizations and posting to online groups in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. Some even jump in their cars and drive to the area.

But what most of these people don't realize is that spontaneous volunteers without specific training and no affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from their home. Consider this:

  • In many post-disaster situations, there is NO food, shelter, services or gas to spare for volunteers. Many volunteers going into Pakistan, Haiti, Japan, even the Gulf Coast states in the USA after Katrina or states affected by Sandy, had to be absolutely self-sustaining for days, even weeks. No shelter or safety measures could be provided to these volunteers by the government. Those volunteers who weren't self-sustaining created big problems.
  • In disaster situations, you are going to be encountering disaster victims. They are going to be stressed, maybe desperate, and maybe angry. If you are untrained and unaffiliated, you may become a target of their anger, because you cannot provide them with appropriate assistance, or because you unintentionally provide them with incorrect information.
  • In disaster situations, volunteers must be mentally and physically prepared to in highly-stressful situations where their own basic needs (like going to the bathroom) must be kept to a minimum. At times, volunteers get to the situation and discover they cannot handle what's happening around them, which is why it is important to know where you should turn in case of an emergency during your volunteer work. 

For the group volunteering experience

  • Review the policies and rules of the day, to clarify the events, to answer questions (may people bring their children? what will people need to bring? what should they wear? what time do they need to be there? if someone can't come that day, who should they call?). If you are volunteering to earn a particular amount of hours, pre-event meetings count as part of your volunteering hours.
  • Be on time. In fact, every person should be onsite, ready to get to work, 15 minutes early!
  • Follow the rules and policies as defined by the organization exactly, and if you see a group member not following policies, call them out on it.
  • Make sure everyone is committed to doing the work properly.
  • If it's permitted, take pictures during your activities and post them after the event on a photo-sharing site. Encourage members to send you photos they may have taken so you can share them as well. It will give group members a great boost regarding the activity long after the work is finished.

Dealing with angry, irrational or aggressive behaviors

While panic may be rare, people may react when they feel they are trapped, have limited resources, feel at high risk or perceived lack of effective management.

  • Avoid overreaction and under reaction; begin with a supportive approach that requires empathic and active listening; avoid being judgmental or dismissing the person as a "complainer."
  • If the person begins to give you clues, verbally and nonverbally, that they are beginning to lose control and are not rational, make sure you attempt to set some limits. For example, if a person is getting too loud, let them know why their behavior needs to cease. A simple explanation can often be enough. If it is not, point out that they cannot stay in the area unless they quite down. Try to help them feel as if they have a choice. Try not to get into a no win power struggle.
  • If the person refuses to follow directive or crisis has occurred and all means of managing the situation have been exhausted, try to avoid physical intervention. Try to remember that most physical acting out is not premeditated violence, but often simply pent up frustration.
  • Be aware of your nonverbal communication.
  • The proximity between you and a possibly violent person may be perceived as a threat if you encroach on their "personal space" While you may be speaking in a calm voice, recognize that face to face, shoulder to shoulder may be seen as a "challenge position." Be aware of you paraverbal communication — how you are speaking may be more important than what you are saying.
  • Although you may have good intentions, the person may perceive you as the threat. While you will always try to make sure that you remain rational and professional, you must also remain safe.

And remember...

  • Be sensitive to cultural diversity
  • Know the cultural group that you are working with
  • Understand they may respond differently
  • Ask assistance of their community leaders
  • Don't stereotype or be judgmental
  • Respect individual beliefs and values
  • Tell them you are trying to help and ask them to help you understand
  • If you make a mistake, apologize
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