"We can see all the pictures and videos available," said Ed Reisinger, council president of Trinity United Church of Christ in Hellam, Pa. "But until you stand there and look upon it, it's hard to understand the devastation."
Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Eastern United States in October, but the effects are still impeding daily life for thousands in the storm's path. From Ohio, to Pennsylvania, to Georgia, UCC congregations are contributing to relief efforts in a multitude of ways, with state conferences and the national offices prepared to offer assistance for the long haul.
Trinity UCC started a school supply drive for Lavallette Elementary School in Lavallette, N.J., where a member's daughter is a teacher. The school was "virtually buried in sand," said Reisinger, and all of its supplies and equipment were buried along with it. Trinity UCC asked for donations of all basic school supplies, as well as gift cards to go toward the purchasing of larger items such as computers and electronics. After the initiative was reported in a few local papers, offers to help starting coming in from as far as Georgia. The congregation continues to accept donations which will be dispersed to Lavallette Elementary School and other schools throughout New Jersey as needed.
"It's sort of a cliché catch phrase now, but this thing seemed to have gone viral," Reisinger said. "We were just going to do it in our congregation but the word spread, which is good."
Margate Community Church UCC in Margate City, N.J., is another congregation contributing tirelessly to relief efforts. With their building virtually unscathed, members were putting their own needs aside to focus on others just 10 days after Hurricane Sandy hit the area. About 35 volunteers prepared, served and delivered nearly 100 meals every Wednesday for four weeks, mostly for the elderly who were unable to leave their homes and for those without electricity and working appliances. In addition to helping their neighbors in need, the Rev. David Fleming said it was a great way for his congregation to come together after a tragedy.
"People needed a sense of community and belonging again," he said. "They needed to get away from living with the damage and the constant worry."
Margate Community Church is also organizing its group of 35-40 members who have volunteered for cleanup efforts after past disasters like Hurricane Ike that struck the gulf coast of Texas in 2008 and the tornados that swept through Alabama in 2011. The group travels to affected areas to offer their time and skills to clean up and rebuild. Fleming said they have gotten similar offers from groups across the country and he is working toward converting the church building into a place these volunteers can stay.
"This group is used to spending a good week of hard work somewhere, and now they can do it by their home," Fleming said. "We are using what we've developed over the years and putting it to work locally."
The UCC Ohio Conference showed some generosity to New York's Coney Island by delivering about 500 cleanup kits to Naomi A.M.E. Zion Church. The conference has offered cleanup kits in support of disaster ministries for a number of years, said Jim Ditzler, member of the disaster ministry team. The kits consist of items such as a bucket, trash bags, rubber gloves, sponges and disinfectant. The conference also supplies personal care kits with things like toothbrushes, soap, combs and washcloths. Within 24 hours of the request, Terry Tangeman, member of St. Paul UCC in Wapakoneta, Ohio, was on the road with a trailer full of cleanup kits and delivered them to Coney Island the next day.
"Terry drove countless hours and is a major contributor to this effort," Ditzler said. "We often say that he keeps adding to his wings as angel status."
While the UCC's main role in a disaster is typically long-term relief, these emergency efforts were important, Ditzler said. The UCC national offices and many state conferences will post volunteer opportunities as volunteer sites are established and individuals are in place to direct the efforts. While the coverage of Hurricane Sandy has diminished in the news, it's important not to forget there is still much work to be done.
"We knew this would be long term," said Fleming. "It will take a number of years to get everything back up and restored."