December 4, 2017 10:18:15 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
When disasters strike, Mississippians respond. Volunteers of all ages, backgrounds and skills descend on stricken communities, looking for ways to help, both big and small.
But in some situations, even the volunteers themselves pose a challenge for the affected communities, especially in the first days of chaos after a major disaster.
Coordinating those volunteers and directing them to the places where they can most help will soon be easier, thanks to a new volunteer program planned by The United Way of Lowndes County.
The Volunteer Response Center (VRC) will help register, coordinate and manage volunteers who arrive in the county after a disaster but who are not affiliated with organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army or other groups that typically respond to emergencies.
"The idea is to organize those volunteers, so that we can match their skills to the needs and get them where they can help," said Renee Sanders, the United Way's volunteer coordinator. "Up until now, there really hasn't been any organized system and that, too, can put a burden on local emergency officials."
Sanders said she hoped to enlist a group of 40 volunteers in the county who will be "on-call" to man the VRC in the event of an emergency. Their sole duty would be to register volunteers and assign them to areas of need.
The VRC will work closely with Lowndes County Emergency Management Director Cindy Lawrence.
"I do think this will be a big help," Lawrence said. "Before, it's been kind of a hit-or-miss thing. So I think the Volunteer Response Center will take something off our plate at a time when we have so many other things we are working on. It's just a better-organized way of making use of the people who are showing up, wanting to help."
Sanders said she hopes to use community centers throughout the city and county as VRC locations.
"That would be ideal," she said. "People are familiar with the community centers, plus being able to move around helps us locate the center close to the affected areas, but not in the affected areas. You don't want to have just one center, because what happens if that center is right in the middle of the disaster area and isn't available?"
Sanders said she is working with local radio and TV to set up an alert system to notify the VRC teams after Lawrence has issued the call.
"Once Cindy makes the call, we hope to get alerts out to the workers, letting them know that we're activating the center," Sanders said. "We hope to have three teams, working 12-hours shifts. Having 40 people signed up gives us flexibility because not everyone will always be available and some of them may need help themselves if the disaster is in their area."
Sanders said she is currently working with area organizations and city and county officials to get the VRC organized and trained.
The next step will be bringing those VRC volunteers aboard.
"Our next meeting is Feb. 14 at 10 a.m. (at) the Mississippi State University Extension Service," Sander said. "The success of this program is going to rely on our ability to find people who are willing to volunteer."
Sanders said the VRC groups will meet twice a year.
"We don't want this to be a big time commitment for them," she said. "And the truth is, the best training is actually going through a disaster, on-the-job training. It's the kind of training you never hope you need to learn."
For more information on being a VRC volunteer worker, call Sanders at 328-0943 or visited the United Way online at [email protected]
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]