So, you want to volunteer in a disaster area? Here’s how


Presbyterian Disaster Assistance offers one-stop shopping for scheduling mission trips, work and lodging

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

A crew of volunteers for Hurricane Harvey relief in Texas. (Photo by Joan Otto)

LOUISVILLE — When Mother Nature rages, Eden Roberts knows her phone is going to start ringing.

“They want to go to the place they saw on the news,” the Mission Specialist for Hosting and Volunteer Management for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) says. “After (Hurricane) Sandy, they all wanted to go to New Jersey where the boardwalk got torn down. Now, Mexico Beach (the Florida town where Hurricane Michael made landfall in October) — everybody wants to go to Mexico Beach.”

In those moments, Roberts usually must tell people “not so fast,” because professional first responders need to do their work first. But for people who want to go help in areas impacted by headline-making natural disasters — and even some that have not made national news but need help all the same — Roberts and the PDA call center are the place to go.

Planning the trip

For groups that want to send volunteers, Roberts says there are some important things to consider before contacting the center:

  • Have a mission committee and decide if disaster response is something you want to do.
  • Ideally, start planning six to nine months before going. Recovery takes time, and there will be needs well after the news cameras have moved on.
  • How far do you want to go? Do you want something in a day’s drive? Are you willing to fly?
  • How many people do you anticipate bringing? An ideal group for PDA volunteer projects tends to be 3-20 people, Roberts says. If your group is on the smaller side, consider opening the trip up to other congregations or even your presbytery.
  • What are the demographics of your group? A lot of volunteers are retirees, but youth and college groups also make up a significant portion of the volunteer pool. Roberts says 14 is usually the minimum age for disaster assistance volunteers. Sometimes, depending on the work partner’s guidelines, volunteers must be at least 16.

Skill sets are not such a big deal up front, Roberts says, because once a trip is arranged, the local hosts will work with you to determine the best arrangements.

Eden Roberts, Mission Specialist for Hosting and Volunteer Management for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, at a volunteer site in Puerto Rico in spring 2018. (Photo by David Gill)

Once you have those parameters, look at the list of active sites at There are currently active volunteer sites in 16 states and Puerto Rico. It may be surprising to some that there is still ongoing recovery work for events such as Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York and New Jersey in 2012.

“We’re there until all the work is finished or all the resources run out,” Roberts says. Again, recovery takes time.

Click here to support the ongoing work of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Once you have looked at the site and determined where you might like to go, then it is time to email Roberts emphasizes emailing as the first contact, because “our phone is ringing constantly.” Through email, she can reply with materials about the area, work and host sites for your group to look through.

The accommodations will usually be at churches that have converted facilities such as Sunday school classrooms or gymnasiums to host groups.

When a disaster happens, Roberts says, long-term recovery experts from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance head out to make an initial assessment and coordinate with local churches that want to be volunteer host sites. Often those sites will get some grant money to upgrade facilities like showers or kitchens to be able to accommodate volunteer groups.

The essentials for host sites, Roberts says, are providing a place to eat, shower and sleep.

For normal recovery work, Roberts says the long-term recovery group in town, separate from the host site, will usually direct the groups to work projects. Once a trip has been scheduled, Roberts says the volunteer groups will be put in touch with their hosts and coordinators.

As you plan, do look to PDA staff and local coordinators for direction and advice, as it’s their job to know the area and the need.

Other pointers

In planning and taking the trip, Roberts asks groups not to try to make the arrangements with the local hosts themselves.

Eden Roberts is the Mission Specialist for Hosting and Volunteer Management for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. (Photo courtesy of Eden Roberts)

“When a host site opens, it’s important to remember that they have just been through a disaster,” Roberts says. “They may have members who have been personally affected by the storm.  The last thing they need is to get calls from well-meaning volunteers looking for a place to stay and work to do.  It’s my job to handle that.

“Think of me as the touchpoint between the sites and the volunteer teams.  This helps prevent the site from feeling overwhelmed and gives me the opportunity to manage the expectations of the incoming volunteers.”

She also strongly cautions against going and looking for your own work.

“Don’t go out and be a spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer, or ‘SUVs’ as we call them. You can get taken advantage of,” Roberts says. “We can make sure you’re not working on someone’s vacation home, for instance.

“Go through the process. There’s a reason for it. We can make sure the people you are working with are uninsured or under-insured and need help.”

Also, be ready to do the work that needs to be done, as opposed to coming with your own set of ideas. For instance, Roberts says she often hears from groups that want to build a house in a week. PDA doesn’t generally have projects like that, but she emphasizes that they work to make sure groups have meaningful work to do while they are on site.

Presbyterian Disaster crews work with the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina after Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Laura Lupton)

“The last thing you want is for a team to take off work for a week and get to a place where they don’t have case-managed, meaningful work,” Roberts says.

You might be surprised to know …

One reason Roberts’ phone is constantly ringing is she doesn’t make arrangements for Presbyterian groups only. She has scheduled trips for other denominations, even religions, as well as colleges and universities.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance doesn’t book trips just for churches. This PDA volunteer crew was from the University of North Texas. (Photo courtesy of PDA)

In the world of disaster recovery, different denominations have carved out different niches, Roberts says. The call center and training are fortes of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she says.

“Baptist crews, they’re used to throwing their chainsaws in the back of the truck and going,” Roberts says, and she will often help them find a place to sleep, even if it’s not quite ready to host groups.

Methodists, she says, specialize in food service, feeding both volunteers and people impacted by the event.

Jim Kirk, PDA Associate for National Disaster Response, says one of the pleasures of his work is that denominational differences fade when everyone is focused on helping people recover from harrowing events.

And PDA wants to hear your stories.

“Sharing their experience is huge,” Roberts says. “I always encourage people to share photos with us and on social media. If they have someone who is a gifted writer, maybe have them write a story and send it us to share on the PDA blog or Mission Mosaic (PDA’s year in review). Talk to other churches about what you did.”

Your story may inspire others to join in recovery efforts, and if the last few years have shown us anything, there will be more disasters and more need for help.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers worked in St. Augustine, Florida after Hurricane Matthew. (Photo by Kathy Broyard)

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