Last Saturday's panel discussion focused on the past, present and future of the volunteer movement in Biloxi and along the Gulf Coast. I took some notes which I'd like to share. Most quotes are paraphrased. First, let's introduce our panel:
Dorothy Noorbaar, Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast / AmeriCorps VISTA
Nelson Walker, Hands On Gulf Coast / North Gulfport Community Land Trust
Craig Snow, Project Coordinator, Hope Force International
Juanita Gaines, Moore Community House
Johnis Ross, Hope Coordination Center
Moderator: Caitlin Brooking, Director of Programs, Hands On Gulf Coast
Why do you volunteer?
Juanita: Because of the many needs in the community, especially among seniors and children. "I love people. You have to be a people person to want to volunteer."
Dorothy: My previous job and life situation weren't fulfilling. So I picked up and moved here in order to do something worthwhile. I don't want to live my life unhappy and unfulfilled.
Johnis: I told myself that I wouldn't break down, even in the face of the enormous loss after Katrina. I wanted to be there for other people, with words, with actions, and with resources. I wanted to be able to work for the Lord.
What is the greatest reward of volunteering?
Craig: Seeing the point at which someone can start to visualize their new house. After it's destroyed, there's nothing but loss and memories. But there's a point during construction, once the sheetrock is in, that people can start to imagine the way their new house will look, imagine their bedroom and living room. That's when hope is restored.
Nelson: Working with kids. My most rewarding moment came when I could be a friend to a child who didn't have a lot of other friends at the time.
What do volunteers bring to a community?
Dorothy: Volunteers sacrifice a lot to come here; they are away from their jobs, their homes, and even their families. Sometimes they get treated like outsiders, and they shouldn't be. They should be valued for what they've given up.
Craig: The volunteer movement can inspire the local community to act in compassion. The best definition of love is: choosing the other person's highest good. That's what volunteers do, and they can inspire others to do that.
Juanita: I agree. Volunteers bring love to a community.
What needs to be happening 3+ years after a disaster?
Johnis: People are getting back into their houses. But what do you do then? There are still great needs. Before the storm, I wanted to open a house for women with children to help them develop parenting skills, financial skills, and more. That need is still as great as ever. Mississippi has a very high rate of teen pregnancy. There's a lot more that needs to be done.
Juanita: Education. Particularly, attempts to reach out and educate people who normally aren't in the loop about what's going on in their communities. We need to go door-to-door to reach out to these people.
Also, we need to encourage volunteers to keep coming down. Invite family members and others to volunteer here or in other areas such as Texas.
Craig: One danger of a long-term volunteer presence that some people will begin to feel a sense of entitlement. They are used to having volunteer services available. With fewer outside volunteers coming in, however, people will have to participate more, and contribute more to the rebuilding of their own communities.
Habitat has the idea of "sweat equity", in which people are required to help out with the construction of their own homes. We've also applied this idea to our recent work in Louisiana after Gustav. Instead of asking people, "What can we do for you?", we ask, "What can we help you do?" We want to enable people to help themselves.
Johnis: One ongoing problem is communication. Not everybody reads the paper or watches the news. We need organizations, like VOAD, that increase communication and cooperation.
How can we develop programs for children without replacing the role of parents?
It's true that if parents don't take an active role, some children are basically being raised by programs. But this doesn't mean that programs are bad; it means parents need to be encouraged to get involved in their childrens' lives. Schools and after-school programs can require parental participation. In some cases, parents have to work two jobs or have other issues that make it difficult for them to spend much time with their children. These issues could be addressed as well.
Caitlin: Hands On has a vision of schools as communities. That means they're not just used from 7 to 2, but for after-school programs, community meetings, and other events that bring parents, children, and community members together.
How do you envision the volunteer movement in 5, 10, or 20 years?
Craig: Leverage the small flow of outside volunteers in order to develop and support a large flow of local volunteers. Help increase the capacity of local organizations.
Johnis: Develop permanent infrastructure for volunteer and community service efforts, such as a disaster response center north of the Bay from which future response efforts could be coordinated.