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West Virginia vaccination effort seeks volunteers

PDA and others urging churches to get involved

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Forrest Palmer is a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team and is participating in an effort by West Virginia’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) to recruit people to fill volunteer positions at COVID-19 vaccination sites. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Forrest Palmer said a prayer as he received his initial dose of COVID-19 vaccine last month in the state of West Virginia. The prayer emanated from a place of gratitude, not of fear.

“The first vaccine that went in I said a prayer of thanksgiving for all of the people that made this possible,” said Palmer, listing off everyone from the pharmaceutical company to the people who participated in clinical trials to the medical staff. “The shot didn’t last that long, but my prayer did.”

In fact, Palmer, who is a member of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) National Response Team, continued to pray as he waited for the 15-20 minute observation period that follows the shot to elapse.

“I was so grateful,” said Palmer, assistant to the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Dunbar, West Virginia, near the Kanawha River about 15 minutes west of Charleston.

Now, he and other religious leaders in West Virginia are rallying behind efforts to build a support team of volunteers to assist with vaccinations in a state that already has been praised by federal officials and others for the successful rollout of its vaccination program and being one of the country’s leaders in getting shots in arms.

West Virginia’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, outlined some of the reasons for the state’s success in a webinar by the West Virginia Council of Churches last week, saying, “We still understand community. We understand family. We understand service. Altruism. We have really acted as a team that has been able to put aside personal egos and personal beliefs to move together, as a single unit, to work in harmony to serve the people of West Virginia.”

In a similar vein, West Virginia’s Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is working to recruit volunteers to help out at COVID-19 vaccination sites around the state.

“We’re thinking with 120-something (Presbyterian) churches, there are volunteers that can help, especially those like me and my wife who have received both doses; we’re both on the volunteer list,” said Palmer, who participates in VOAD as part of his work for PDA.

Both Palmer and the Presbytery of West Virginia have been working collaboratively to notify churches about the need for volunteers and educate people about how to sign up to give of their time.

“Volunteers do not put shots in arms,” Palmer said. However, “there is a lot you can do.”

Vaccination sites are being opened in various places, including churches and other community facilities, and “they all need volunteers,” Palmer said.

Roles for volunteers include being greeters, verifying appointments, helping people find parking places, assisting those who need wheelchairs, helping with hand sanitizing and masks, putting papers on clipboards and sanitizing items including clipboards and timers.

People should consider volunteering because after a rough season, it’s “a path toward wholeness. It’s a path toward community. It’s a path toward restoration and hope,” Palmer said.

Palmer recently met with an association of pastors from various denominations so they could receive materials about volunteering and about the vaccine itself. The need for volunteers to step forward also has been highlighted in the Presbytery of West Virginia’s newsletter.

“At a time when we are unable to deploy people in person, it is wonderful to see Presbyterians reaching out in service to others,” said the Rev. Jim Kirk, Associate for National Disaster Response for PDA.

“PDA encourages our national volunteers to use their experience and skill locally,” Kirk added. “With 100 national volunteers throughout the U.S. and territories, there are many opportunities to do what Forrest and others are doing: witness to the love of Christ in their presbytery and communities.”

First Presbyterian Church in Bluefield, West Virginia, has helped to recruit volunteers to help at COVID-19 vaccination sites. (Photo courtesy of the Rev. Maggie Rust)

Among the churches that have responded to the call for volunteers is First Presbyterian Church in Bluefield, which is in southern West Virginia in Mercer County. After receiving a call from Palmer, the church quickly began spreading the word about the need for volunteers.

“For about two weeks or so, we tried to just sort of blanket all of the church communications and even ecumenical relationships to say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for volunteers,’” said the Rev. Maggie Rust, the pastor at FPC in Bluefield.

Rust estimated that a dozen people signed up right away as a result of those efforts, and additional people from Rust’s church and elsewhere have shown interest since then. That’s good news because “the sooner we can get our community vaccinated, the safer everybody is,” she said.

During last week’s COVID-19 webinar by the West Virginia Council of Churches, Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, West Virginia’s Adjutant General, urged churches to help get people registered to be vaccinated and to help make sure that people, such as the homebound and minorities, do not miss out on the shots.

“We know we have populations that we still have not gotten to effectively … but with your help and pressing us, we can continue to get to where we need to be,” said Hoyer, the leader of a joint interagency task force on vaccination in the Mountain State.

The Rev. Maggie Rust, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bluefield, West Virginia (Photo provided by Rust)

Both Palmer and Rust said getting vaccinated is a way to be good neighbors.

“It’s what Jesus would have us do when he said love your neighbor as yourself,” Palmer said. “You’re loving your neighbor by getting this vaccine. … You’re loving yourself by keeping yourself healthy.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. It is supported by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

If you are interested in volunteering to help with vaccine distribution, contact your local emergency management office for opportunities.


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