In times of need, local volunteers step up

Tornado-struck community discovers that help is always available, even in a pandemic

By Darla Carter | Presbyterians Today

When tornadoes tore through Oconee County in South Carolina, members of Seneca Presbyterian Church quickly mobilized, removing debris and fallen trees
from their neighbors’ lawns. Courtesy of Seneca Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) volunteers Richard and Susan Caldwell had been praying about their mission work and where God would lead them to when fate stepped in. In April, tornadoes tore through their state the morning after Easter, sparing their South Carolina home but leaving extensive damage just blocks from their church, Seneca Presbyterian, and killing one person.

The Caldwells quickly mobilized, seeking help with things like clearing debris and cutting trees for affected residents. The response was swift and strong.

“We had 30 people show up,” said Richard Caldwell, a parish associate at the Seneca, South Carolina, church. They are “a great bunch of people,” primarily church members and their families, and they’re “doing a lot of hard manual work,” he said.

The effort in Oconee County took place at a time when traditional deployments of PDA’s National Response Team were on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. PDA’s approximately 40 volunteer host sites were expected to remain closed through June as the country worked to slow the spread of the contagious virus.

However, National Response Team member Rick Turner had been “virtually” deployed to help with coordination from his home, about 30 miles from the cleanup.

Natural disasters don’t care about pandemics, so when cleanup from a tornado needed to happen, Presbyterians got together to lend a hand while being mindful of social distancing. Courtesy of Seneca Presbyterian Church

Turner, working with Foothills Presbytery, which Seneca Presbyterian Church is part of, began the work of obtaining PDA grants and collaborating with the Caldwells.

“I’ve been on the phone with him,” Richard Caldwell said. “We’ve emailed considerably. He’s been invaluable.”

At least 1,478 homes in 22 counties sustained some type of damage from the tornado, according to local emergency managers. Many residents, including Seneca’s pastor, John Hartman, had downed trees. The church also sustained some damage — relatively mild compared to some homeowners — as did nearby Townville Presbyterian Church, which had some roof damage. In addition, a columbarium was hit by a tree.

“Usually, we don’t deploy within our own presbytery, but with virtual deployments and coronavirus you’ve got to do things a different way,” Turner said.

The Caldwells, who have experience from participating in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in New Jersey, were also ready to receive Gift of the Heart kits, which are flood buckets and hygiene kits for volunteers and survivors, Turner said. Also, “a number of churches have contacted us, either through the Seneca church or through the presbytery, to send in food and supplies,” he said.

Jim Kirk, an associate for PDA’s National Disaster Response, praised the South Carolina effort and noted that other volunteer efforts were taking place either through virtual coordination or boots-on-the-ground action elsewhere in the country where help is needed.

“Now more than ever we need Presbyterians who are local to stand up and get involved in ways that are safe and appropriate,” Kirk said. “In finding new ways to be the church, local volunteers have risen to the occasion, and this is an opportunity for Presbyterians across the country to step forward and be the hands and feet of Christ.”

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic is just one of the disasters that PDA is facing.

“Individuals and families are still recovering from the last three hurricane seasons, the terrible recent fire seasons in California and the flooding and severe storms that continue,” Kirk said. “Local volunteers who can drive to the site and work safely will make all the difference.”

Why are Presbyterians getting involved at a time when many Americans are hunkered down at home?

“They’re just answering God’s call,” Turner said.

One challenge in helping others during the era of COVID-19 is that of physical distancing.

“When you’re sawing trees and hauling off limbs, sometimes you get closer than six-feet,” Richard Caldwell said. “We had to try to remind people of safe distancing.”

Kirk noted, “If you live in an area recently affected by a disaster or that is still involved in long-term rebuilding and are able to volunteer locally, PDA strongly encourages individuals to follow the guidelines set by the local government officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. We recognize that volunteer labor is crucial after a disaster, but we need to be mindful against creating another disaster by potentially spreading viruses.”

The work in South Carolina has included clearing trees from a woman’s backyard and helping remove a vintage scooter from a demolished home.

“We’re just very impressed by how local congregations and the presbytery are being adaptive in their response to this very devastating event,” Kirk said.

Darla Carter is a communications associate with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.


Praying for those in need

Often in times of disaster, people ask what they can do and how they can help.

Following a disaster, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance reminds us that the best first response is to pray, seeking God’s presence on behalf of those in need.

Prayer and Worship Resources

Support Presbyterian Today’s publishing ministry. Click to give


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?