To her New York colleagues in disaster recovery, Joann Hale is now "Woman of the Year," but to a little boy and his dad in a hotel elevator, she is a stranger who kindly listened.
Hale, a member of Riverside Salem UCC in Grand Island, N.Y., was honored by the New York City Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) coalition and New York state officials on Oct. 22 during the state's first annual Disaster Human Services Conference.
But those who know her say Hale does her best work away from the applause.
As Hale returned to her room after the festivities, she came across an 8-year-old boy and his dad in the elevator.
The father politely asked if Hale was attending a conference. Hale, a Church World Service disaster response and recovery liaison, said, yes, it was a conference of disaster workers. Soon, the gentleman began talking about his own disaster. "He said, ÔMy house was hit by a tornado six years ago, as his eyes filled with tears," Hale remembers.
"He was talking as if this tornado happened yesterday," Hale says. "He said, ÔEvery time I see a disaster—like in Florida this year—I remember that."
Hale's job is to get people of faith to work together before and after disasters strike. And encounters like the one in the elevator, Hale says, are common, even if they're never commonplace.
Every day, Hale monitors potential disasters, assesses damages and reports on faith-based response. Hale says many churches simply are not aware there are national faith-based resources related to disaster response. She says she's visited with many pastors who aren't aware they might have a national disaster response ministry connected with their denomination.
Hale is not only willing to listen to others' stories, but she has her own to share.
In 1979, Hale lived in Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls. During the 1940s and 1950s, some 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals had been dumped into the Love Canal landfill.
In 1953, the landfill reached maximum capacity, and Hooker Chemical layered it with dirt and sold the land to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for one dollar. Included in the deed transfer was a warning of the chemical wastes buried on the property and a disclaimer absolving the company of any further liability.
The 99th Street Elementary School was built directly on the landfill site, and single-family homes and apartments surrounded it. Residents began having inexplicable health problems, and they were noticing strange odors and substances on their property.
Hale remembers not being able to grow plants in her yard. "For a housewarming gift, I received some shrubs but they wouldn't grow," she says.
"The community was in turmoil," remembers Hale. "Nobody knew what to do. It was a community of hurting people."
An interfaith group—the Ecumenical Task Force of the Niagara Frontier—was formed to help inform and support residents of Love Canal. And in 1978, the New York State Commissioner of Health, declared a medical state of emergency and ordered immediate closure of the school. That same year, President Jimmy Carter declared the area a federal emergency and the federal government permanently relocated 239 families living in the first two rows of homes encircling the landfill.
More than 26 years later, Hale—who continues to work with the UCC on technological disaster issues—still wrestles with the unanswerable questions, "When do you feel whole again? When do you move on?"