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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance official offers advice on intentional volunteering

Michelle Muñiz, PDA’s disaster recovery coordinator for Puerto Rico, speaks at a conference for voluntary relief organizations

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

PDA’s Michelle Muñiz presents last week on “intentional volunteering” at the conference of the Puerto Rican affiliate of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — “How do we do justice to the people we serve and have empathy with them?”

Last week, Michelle Muñiz posed this question to an assembly of 100 leaders of disaster relief organizations in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the Puerto Rican affiliate chapter of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (PRVOAD) Conference and Assembly.

Muñiz, who is the disaster recovery coordinator for Puerto Rico for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, addressed the group on Tuesday afternoon in a presentation titled “Intentional Volunteering.” Muñiz has presented longer versions of this training in the past at places such as Montreat Conference Center along with PDA Director the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo under the framework of “Decolonizing Volunteering.” The Rev. Dr. Jim Kirk, PDA’s associate for Disaster Response in the United States, traveled to Puerto Rico to attend the three-day conference with Muñiz and connect with local pastors and partners of the PDA program.

At the conference for PRVOAD, Muñiz, who serves on the Volunteer Committee of PRVOAD, spoke to colleagues as part of the multi-year and multi-prong efforts to address disaster relief through mitigation and response. The conference also featured presentations by the local representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Missionary Disaster Response, Billy Graham Rapid Response organizations, and Puerto Rico’s Department of Housing, as well as several officers on the PRVOAD board. Attendees included the Rev. Arelis Cardona of Iglesia Presbiteriana de Rvdo. Ramon Olivo Robles in Monteflores and moderator of the Presbytery of San Juan, and the Rev. Marielis Barreto, pastor at Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana en Aguada. Their congregations are both host sites for volunteers with PDA. The Rev. Rubén Ortíz, stated clerk of Presbiterio del Suroeste (the Southwest Presbytery of Puerto Rico), was also present at the conference.

The Rev. Arelis Cardona dreamed of opening the manse of her church as a host site for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers. La Casona de Monteflores opened in December 2017. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)


The Rev. Eber Candelario, who is from the same presbytery as Ortíz, was also in attendance. Candelario is the pastor of Iglesia Presbiteriana en Corcovada in the municipality of Añasco, a coastal plain region that sustained significant damage during 2017’s Hurricane María due to the excessive rainfall and resultant landslides — some areas suffering more than 25 landslides per square mile. Due to the severity of the damages and the shortage and restrictions in U.S. federal aid, many of the voluntary organizations present at the PRVOAD conference, such as PDA’s partner, Techos Pa’ Mi Gente, are still rebuilding homes and overseeing mitigation projects left in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes in addition to more recent earthquakes and hurricanes.

During a presentation called “A New Perspective on Voluntary Agency Liaisons in States and Territories,” local FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaisons (VALs) discussed the lessons they had learned through the 2017 hurricanes and safety requirements of the pandemic. Local FEMA VALs Saudith Rivera, Carlos Camacho and Iván Ríos emphasized a collaborative approach between FEMA and PRVOAD leadership, embracing the national and local VOAD’s vision statement of the four Cs: communication, cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

A major component of the Voluntary Agency Liaison’s work, according to FEMA’s website, is to provide guidance to Long-Term Recovery Groups (LTRGs) like PDA and its partners, Techos Pa Mi’ Gente and SBPUSA, whose operations started in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and which has been active on the island since 2018.

PRVOAD’s president, the Rev. Dr. David Guadalupe EJ, thanked the FEMA VALs for their presentation and FEMA’s increased cooperation with PRVOAD, while acknowledging the skepticism around FEMA held by many Puerto Ricans. In his response to FEMA VALs’ presentation, he emphasized the trust and agency retained by long-term recovery groups in the current response to disaster relief and mitigation.

Acknowledging the reality of the long-term presence of volunteers focused on disaster relief and mitigation, Muñiz stressed during her presentation the importance of preparedness, from registering volunteers using Google Forms and assessing their skills and language competency. She also encouraged offering resources toward people’s cultural competency and increased knowledge of systemic issues affecting the vulnerabilities of the Puerto Rican infrastructure. In her work with PDA, Muñiz shares a dozen articles and videos in her regular newsletters and in pre-trip packets to registered groups to better educate volunteers before they arrive. Topics include systemic issues surrounding the way that electricity is managed on the island before and after Hurricanes Irma, María and Fiona, as included in a November 2022 newsletter for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, to growing displacement of Puerto Ricans due to gentrification as shared in her May 2023 newsletter.

“Not knowing can affect us,” Muñiz said as she gave examples of what happens when volunteers and organizations lack information about each other. “A lot of the issues related to what happened in a certain area are not just a product of the disaster but of what our island has gone through for decades.” Muñiz, who trained in communications and worked as a journalist before joining PDA, pointed to a TED Talk that she shares with volunteers by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” Muñiz said she uses this video to reflect before she enters new spaces and shares it with volunteers before they arrive. “In the same way I have single stories about other places, many have single stories about Puerto Rico.” Muñiz encouraged the other volunteer organizations to educate volunteers on the contexts where they serve, whether it be issues about the country as a whole or the realities of various cultural groups and neighborhoods where worksites are located.

Presbyterian pastors in Puerto Rico and staff of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance attended the conference for the Puerto Rican affiliate of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. (Photo by Michelle Muñiz)

Last week’s PRVOAD conference was held in the Rotary Club of San Juan and attracted other Rotary Club members from chapters as far as Long Island, New York, who had been active in disaster assistance since attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. To organizations who attract volunteers from all over the hemisphere and world, Muñiz held up the national network of the Presbyterian Mission Agency as an example where the multiple stories from volunteers and hosts intersect in ways that go beyond the task at hand. She tells groups hosted by PDA that she hopes their experience continues to affect how they understand conversations about Puerto Rico in their denomination and in United States policy.

“A big part of the response and recovery work is completed by volunteers,” said Muñiz, who explained ways organizations could train volunteers away from a patronizing approach and into a partnership one.

“Regardless, if it’s a particular project led by an  organization or a direct response to an emergency,” said Muñiz, the number of volunteers is incredible.

To support PDA’s ongoing hurricane response in Puerto Rico, designate gifts to DR000194.

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