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The power of coming together: Collaboration was the theme at National VOAD Conference

Disaster responders, communicators and coordinators gathered May 8-11 in St. Louis for the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) conference, “Gateway to Collaboration.” Attendees from religious and secular organizations from around the country, along with representatives from government agencies such as FEMA, heard the latest disaster response initiatives in the various workshops and presentations offered throughout the four-day event. What was just as important as the plethora of information, though, was for VOAD members to meet in-person once again.“It was good having the family back together,” said the Rev. Karl Jones. Jones, who serves as a Conference Disaster Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference as well as the communications coordinator for Pennsylvania VOAD, noted that the pandemic Zoom years were “doable” because of the established relationships among VOAD members. Yet, he added, as staffs shift and new volunteers join, the opportunity to meet face-to-face is not only refreshing, but also vital in the building of trust and rapport needed in the collaborative work of disaster response and rebuilding. “Especially as climate-related disasters are becoming more frequent,” said Jones. “Getting to know one another, networking with others and having the chance to talk with FEMA representatives has never been so important.”The Rev. Greg Denk, a Conference Disaster Coordinator (CDC) for the Indiana Kentucky Conference, agrees. Denk, a retired pastor who says responding to disasters had always been part of his call in the parish — offering prayers for impacted communities and rallying parishioners to participate in a multitude of volunteer opportunities — now has a sole mission walking alongside communities after the news cameras have stopped filming. “The work of rebuilding is a long process,” said Denk. Take for example, the ongoing work of repairing homes after a tornado struck Mayfield, Kentucky in December 2021. Denk expects to be in Mayfield for “at least another five years.” The homes, he said, are being rebuilt through a local program called “New Lease on Life,” which gives locals the opportunity to finally own a home.“Mayfield had a high number of renters before the tornado. This program is one way in which the community can come back stronger,” said Denk, adding, “The work we do is all about rebuilding a better community.”Denk credits the partnerships formed in VOAD with helping him do a better job as a CDC. While only the second time attending a VOAD conference, he found it once again “eye-opening.”“I have learned that recovery begins locally and ends locally,” said Denk, observing that the danger is always to bring one’s own ideas — and ego — into a community, rather than listening to how that community wants to recover. “How do they want to rebuild? What is sustainable? If you listen intently to those you are helping, then you will be a lot better at what you do,” said Denk. The 2024 National VOAD conference will be held in Phoenix, May 6-9. To learn more, go to:

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