A decade ago, Linda and Keith Lenhart "took a leap of faith" with United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries when they became involved with disaster preparedness and recovery. Today, the Pennsylvania couple, now disaster coordinators for the UCC Penn-Northeast Conference, is helping usher along a seven-person team that will travel to South Carolina to assist in the rebuilding effort — the first work team from the UCC on its way to the state after flooding in October claimed 19 lives and destroyed thousands of homes.
"When we get in early, we as individuals can really help with long-term recovery planning," Linda said. "I know the UCC is taking on a new role to get into the affected areas earlier than in the past, so I am excited to see what we can uncover and learn when we get down there. This is brand new — I don't think we've ever gone anywhere this soon to begin recovery."
The Lenharts and their team will join a team of three on the ground from the newly-launched Disaster Recovery Support Initiative — an ecumenical collaboration among the UCC, Disciples of Christ and the Church of the Brethren — deployed within two-to-six weeks of an event to remain with the community for a period of several months.
The seven-person team leaves Pennsylvania Saturday (Jan. 9) and will arrive in West Columbia, S.C., the next day with two trailers in tow. The tool trailers were purchased and stocked by UCC Disaster Ministries, first to support Superstorm Sandy recovery work by the Penn-Northeast Conference. When not in use for disaster-related work by the conference, the trailers and tools can be used in other parts of the country where UCC Disaster Ministries is working. The trailers and tools will remain in South Carolina indefinitely for use by work teams that come from UCC, Disciples of Christ and Church of the Brethren.
"While we are down there for the week, I understand there's a chance we might do some demolition, and some roof and drywall work that will need to be done, Linda said. "We anticipate either helping set up for future work camps, or go out to individual homes."
The Lenharts have been disaster coordinators for the Penn-Northeast Conference for 10 years, having taken trips to Florida, Tennessee, and Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., to work on disaster recovery sites. "We've been involved heavily in our conference and with the wider church to take groups different places, Linda said.
Added Keith, "It's what you see in the people after you do the work for them. It's the good will that you bring to people through the work you do."
UCC Disaster Ministries is one of 13 nonprofit organizations that received grant money to support its recovery projects in hard-hit areas across South Carolina. The $25,000 grant will mostly cover costs of construction materials while volunteer work teams are on the ground helping rebuild and repair destroyed homes.
Zach Wolgemuth, Disaster Ministries executive, will spend time in South Carolina from Jan. 13-15 to "have firsthand knowledge of how the recovery efforts are progressing, what is working well, what needs changed and how I can best support both the efforts of our work teams. But most importantly [to have knowledge of] those who are serving long-term, behind the scene, to maximize the donations of time, talents and treasure that have been given for these disaster survivors."
"Not only will this be the first work team to begin recovery in this ecumenical partnership, Wolgemuth continued, "UCC Disaster Ministries is also supporting three long-term disaster volunteers that will help to coordinate volunteer work team efforts over the next several months."
Meanwhile, along the Mississippi River, UCC Disaster Ministries is staying in close contact with conferences near that river and tributaries accessing immediate and long-term needs after widespread flooding in December. Several storms killed at least 43 people, according to news reports, and dozens of communities are swamped. This will be another long-term recovery effort for Disaster Ministries.
Asked what advice he would offer to someone considering becoming a disaster volunteer, Keith said, "Listen a lot, and don't make your own conclusion about what people need. Sometimes people just need you to listen to them, and the most rewarding experiences I've had in disaster ministry has been with sitting and listening to people. It takes the pressure off them and shows you are interested in the person, and not just what you think they need."