Planning Volunteer Efforts

Janet E. Fox, Hebert, Lanette G.

In the moments, hours and even days surrounding a disaster, there is great concern for safety and preservation of life. Police and civil defense forces are strained. Those affected by disaster seek temporary relief and assistance, often provided by the American Red Cross and Salvation Army.

It’s important to establish human needs for immediate relief and long-term recovery focusing on emotional, financial and physical needs. When disaster strikes, housing and feeding are usually immediate priorities.

Following a disaster, there is an ongoing need to deal with a wide range of reactions. Disaster victims experience grief expressed as denial, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance. Some individuals will become withdrawn and unable to talk about the event; others have intense feelings of angry and sadness. Not everyone has immediate reactions; some have delayed reactions that show up days, weeks or even months later, and some may never have a reaction.
It’s important to accept the feelings experienced by those who have lived through the disaster. Support and outreach efforts should be organized as soon as possible. Care should be extended to the caregivers who may also suffer grief as they deal with human loss.

When disaster strikes, people everywhere want to help those individuals in need. To ensure that this compassion and generosity are put to good use, it’s important to know what stages victims go through in disaster recovery. With each stage, the needs of the victim change. Therefore, to be meaningful, thought needs to be put into what the victims' needs are and how the volunteer program can best meet their needs.

A disaster happens in phases. The first phase is Rescue or Emergency, which is marked by chaos and confusion. During the rescue or emergency, the needs are food, shelter and energy (electricity, natural gas, etc. for food preparation and warmth). Items needed are dry ice, generators and chain saws. It’s important to survey staff and members to determine needs.

Stage 2 is the Relief phase, which is characterized by abandonment and fear. Meeting secondary needs include repairing buildings, removing debris and taking care of personal needs such as providing food and water. Organizations can provide volunteers at feeding centers, Red Cross shelters and where cleanup is needed. Volunteers play an important role in providing a listening ear. It’s important that volunteers discourage rumors that add to the fear and abandonment. All affected should be encouraged to apply for assistance.

As people begin the long-term recovery process, finances are critical. Financial contributions should be made through a recognized voluntary organization to help ensure that contributions are put to their intended use. Media might ask for items to be donated; however, immediately after a disaster, relief workers usually don't have the time or facilities to set up distributions channels, and too often these items go to waste.

Individuals and groups are more than willing to donate funds, supplies and their time; however, there is a need to coordinate these efforts so they can be directed to the right needs. Organizations such as United Way, the Red Cross and local government often serve as the coordinating agencies for a disaster. In determining what can be done to meet the needs of clientele, volunteer program administrations should:

  1. Listen to media for needed items and drop-off locations. Shelters often get flooded with unneeded donations that occupy space needed to house evacuees.
  2. Identify opportunities to volunteer. With shelters associated with disasters, often they are in need of specific items. In addition, it’s often helpful to set up activities for the youth and their families. Disaster organizations often need help with the phone and other office duties because their staff are meeting one-on-one with the disaster victims.
  3. Develop an ongoing communications system where you can share volunteer opportunities with affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers.

Recovery, the final stage, is marked with emotions from anger and depression to hope and acceptance. It’s important that volunteers stay involved in the disaster-response that begins to evolve. Volunteers can play a role in mobilizing a community response and work in cooperation with other organizations. Communities must explore available resources including fiscal and emotional resources. Working together will prevent duplication and waste and better match resources to local needs. Long-term impacts of disaster may require volunteers to adapt to changing needs of survivors.


In the past decade, more than 585 major disaster declarations and an additional 106 emergency declarations have disrupted the lives of Americans and tragically affected the communities where they live and work. To serve effectively and meaningfully, it’s important that volunteer organizations determine what phases of disaster response a program are most suited to help. Disaster planning involves planning for preparation, prevention, response and recovery. Volunteers can play a significant role in addressing the needs of communities hit hard by a disaster.

Written by: Janet Fox, associate professor, and Lanette Hebert, 4-H regional coordinator, LSU AgCenter 4-H Youth Development


Extraordinary Need, Extraordinary Resource: Volunteer Centers Respond to the 2004 Hurricanes. Points of Light Foundation and Volunteer Center National Network. Retrieved September 2, 2005.

Helping Children Cope with Disaster. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency. Retrieved September 2, 2005.

Preparing your congregation for a disaster: During a Disaster. Retrieved on September 1, 2005.

Tierney, K., M. Lindell, and R. Perry. 2001. Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States . Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

9/7/2005 1:08:00 AM
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