When tornadoes hit East Columbus and New Hope in 2014, roughly 50 volunteers from the southeast United States and Golden Triangle regions swarmed to Columbus to remove debris and clean up homes. These volunteers were responding to a request for help from the Columbus-Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency.
In times of disaster, the Columbus-Lowndes EMA approves organizations to set up volunteer recovery centers and sends requests for volunteers to man those centers to Renee Sanders, volunteer coordinator for United Way of Lowndes County.
Sanders decided this year to take a proactive approach to responding to crisis by organizing a “volunteer response center training.” The training took place Wednesday morning at EMA’s office next to the Lowndes County courthouse in downtown Columbus.
Adrian Austin, disaster volunteer management officer for Volunteer Mississippi, led the training session. Volunteer Mississippi is a nonprofit agency that coordinates training and volunteer opportunities for Mississippians, and Austin said he directs up to 15 training sessions a year for organizations throughout the state.
“This is a basic training to get people familiar with what a VRC is,” Austin said.
What is a VRC?
According to Austin, VRCs come into play when a large influx of volunteers travel to an area to help respond to a crisis.
“It’s a location that has been identified as a place for unaffiliated volunteers to come and register to help out during a disaster,” Austin said.
Austin said VRCs receive requests for assistance from community residents, and volunteers are then sent out to help. Once a volunteer registers with a VRC, Austin said, the VRC staff determines what skills and preferences volunteers have and assigns them to specific tasks.
He said it is crucial for volunteers to register because a rouge volunteer can do more harm than good.
“It creates a safety issue because you get volunteers in there, and when they’re not registered with the VRC they can be a liability,” Austin said.
According to Sanders, a large number of volunteers coming to an area can be stressful, so Wednesday’s session allowed those agencies at the forefront of disaster response to put faces with other organizations that provide hands-on volunteer training.
“Everyone has their different roles, but if we never meet until the day of a disaster, that’s a disaster in itself,” Sanders said.
For Wednesday’s training, Sanders pulled representatives from the American Red Cross, Volunteer Columbus, United Way, Salvation Army, Columbus-Lowndes EMA, Noxubee EMA Columbus Air Force Base, Noxubee County Economic and Community Development Alliance and local churches to create what she calls a volunteer response committee.
“They won’t necessarily be hands-on in that volunteer center, but I needed them to be in this initial meeting so they’ll know who I am and what it is I’m trying to do. So when there is a disaster, they’ll send individuals to me,” Sanders said.
The committee will be responsible for disseminating the information learned Wednesday to members of their organizations.
According to Jacqueline Knight, an ambassador for Volunteer Columbus, the session taught her the importance of having a plan in place when disaster strikes, and she looks forward to sharing new knowledge with her faith community at Greater Mount Zion Church.
“We have a leadership meeting once a month, and I carry back all the information that I receive from Volunteer Columbus,” Knight said. “It is my job to carry back the information that I gather to our church leaders, and then they disperse it throughout the congregation.”
The disaster response committee plans to gather for a second training session next month and then will look to train individual volunteers who would man a VRC when the time comes.
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