Preparing Volunteers to Respond to a Disaster

Janet E. Fox, Hebert, Lanette G.

Because the needs vary with each disaster, volunteer programs must be flexible with the response they give to a disaster. At times, there are lots of volunteers one month and none the next. It’s important to pick a date, get a schedule, make plans and be flexible. Closer to the date, you’ll get information about the greatest needs. It’s important to understand that local organizations might not have details at the time of the initial contact or even closer to the time.

Interacting with Others

Following a disaster, victims are dealing 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 Some individuals will become withdrawn and unable to talk about the event; others have intense feelings of angry and sadness.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.

To work with disaster victims, you need to understand how the disaster affects the victim. Several factors contribute to how a victim copes with disaster. Victims are more vulnerable to the effects of a disaster if they have had direct exposure to it. This includes being evacuated, seeing injured or dying people, being injured themselves and feeling that their lives are threatened. A person is more vulnerable if he or she has experienced personal loss, including the death or serious injury of a family member, close friend or pet. Ongoing stress from the secondary effects of disaster could include temporary living conditions, losing contact with friends and family, losing material possessions, job loss and the financial costs of reestablishing themselves.

As a volunteer, you are being introduced to a whole new culture quite different from your own. The behaviors, values and beliefs of the victims can differ greatly from the volunteers trying to serve them. With interaction, volunteers will notice common denominators between themselves and the individuals being served. It’s important to avoid stereotypes. While serving disaster victims, you are a guest in their culture. Volunteers should be open to learn as a result of the experience so they develop empathy and understanding of how to serve effectively. Prior exposure to disasters or other traumatic events is another important factor affecting how an individual copes with disaster.

Skills You Need to Be An A+ Disaster Volunteer

Acceptance – It’s important for volunteers to accept the disaster victims with whom they may be working. Without the comforts of home, these individuals might be smelly and unkempt.

Awareness – Volunteers must be aware of feelings about stereotypes. Stereotypes are a roadblock to being effective. Instead of passing judgment on people, pay attention to their lives; get to know their goals, dreams, fears and history. Often, understanding where people are coming from provides an understanding of why they act the way they do.

Attentive – Volunteers must be observant and attentive to the needs of those they serve. It’s important for volunteers to listen more than they talk. While volunteers might perceive they are volunteering to teach, provide a service or be in charge, they should demonstrate respect by trying to learn from the experience.

Attitude - Volunteers need to have a positive attitude when dealing with disaster victims. Every day, we choose our attitudes. It’s important to stress that volunteers understand victims but encourage victims to focus on what they do have rather than what they don’t have. While one cannot change what’s happened, volunteers should model that victims can choose how they react to their situations.

Supporting disaster victims through volunteering has many benefits. Volunteers who serve grow to understand themselves and others. They witness and begin to understand the issues of poverty first-hand and see how rich their own lives are. Volunteers experience the joy of selfless giving. Getting to know people from different backgrounds helps volunteers understand how compliance with certain aspects of our nation affects the life, health, safety and dignity of others.


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

Helping Children Cope with Disaster. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Preparing your congregation for a disaster: During a Disaster.

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 12:56:14 AM
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