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Today in the Mission Yearbook

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

March 28, 2019

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,” says the mission specialist for hosting and volunteer management for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). “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, Roberts and the PDA call center are the place to go.

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.
  • 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 three to 20 people, Roberts says.
  • What are the demographics of your group? Roberts says 14 is usually the minimum age for disaster assistance volunteers.

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.

Then, 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.

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.

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

Roberts doesn’t make arrangements for Presbyterian groups only. She has scheduled trips for other denominations, as well as colleges and universities.

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.

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.

 Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Deborah Murphy, OGA
Margaret Mwale, PMA

Let us pray:

Most loving and compassionate God may your comforting presence and abundance of grace be on our service providers, churches and communities who have suffered immense loss from natural and human-made disasters. Amen.

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