When a major disaster happens in the world, it’s common, and frankly humanity-affirming, for global citizens to want to help. However, when the disaster in question is as devastating as last week’s earthquake in Haiti, it is often the case that the primary way folks are encouraged to get involved is to raise funds, raise voices, and raise awareness. And while fundraising, advocacy, and public awareness are critically important activities to participate in, they can sometimes be frustrating substitutes for those who are seeking to lend a hand in a more direct and tangible way by volunteering.
Yet for those seeking to contribute their skills, time, and energy on the ground in a disaster response situation, the advice is generally to wait. Many times the disaster area is so chaotic, the needs so dire, and the resources so scarce, the work at hand is best left to those already trained in effective disaster response and emergency relief; indeed, well-meaning yet ill-trained volunteers can actually become a hindrance or liability in these situations, slowing the delivery of critically needed services.
It’s important to note here though that the advice is not to forget about volunteering but rather to wait. Disaster response can be an extraordinarily large endeavor and once the environment has become more stabilized and critical human needs have been or are more effectively being met, there is usually significant rebuilding work to be done. Indeed volunteers will be and are needed months if not years post-disaster to assist with everything from home and school construction to education and social services to environmental conservation.
Consider 2005’s catastrophic Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Five years later, there is still significant recovery work underway in Louisiana and Mississippi; a quick search of Idealist’s volunteer opportunity postings today turns up requests for volunteers to partner in tasks like:
- Rebuilding homes
- Assisting with historic preservation
- Delivering meals and other social services
- Transcribing oral histories
- Conducting community outreach
- Engaging in advocacy
- Updating and redesigning websites
- Providing pro bono legal advice and counsel
In short, the work of recovery and rebuilding following major disasters is enormous and complex and volunteers are needed to partner with local communities for months and years afterward. For those eager to lend a hand in Haiti, consider investing today in the skilled organizations, staff, and volunteers already on the ground by donating money; interested future volunteers might also explore local opportunities to participate in disaster response training (getting trained today means you may be more likely to serve as a first responder in a future disaster situation.) In the meantime, however, start planning to volunteer down the road. You will almost certainly be needed.