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Powerful Story on the Healing Power of BBQ

My name is John. I live in Iowa City, IA, about 15 miles south of Cedar Rapids.  As you of course know, Operation BBQ Relief has been operating in Cedar Rapids. Cedar Rapids has been decimated.

I decided to write to you because I had such a meaningful experience with your organization earlier this week, and I wanted to share my story with someone at the organization.

We saw an announcement somewhere–I think Facebook—that indicated people were needed to deliver food from a staging area to food distribution points, so my wife Deb and I signed up to take a shift.  

We left for our shift about 2:30 that afternoon.  We arrived at and were directed to a large roped -off area in the parking lot.  I remember thinking normally this area would be packed with cars—but due to the pandemic there was a lot of open space.  When we entered the area we got into a line with about 10 other cars.  When we drove in I noticed your large tractor trailer, several tents, about 15-20 people working on various tasks.  The people working were wonderful. There was a crew who were loading cars.  Once everything was ready we pulled up and they loaded our car with barbecue, beans, plastic cutlery, individual serving containers, etc and told us where to deliver it.  The car was packed.  We had a lot of food. Prior to driving into that parking lot I had never heard of your organization.

It was about a 30 minute drive to our drop -off point—a community center in a residential neighborhood.  As we made that drive through the neighborhoods the true extent of the destruction became apparent.  As I am sure you know it was incredible.  We rounded the corner in a residential neighborhood, and I saw probably 75 people in line at a small building.  All kinds of people….young (including toddlers and babies in strollers) old, (some with walkers), multiracial—just a very diverse group by many criteria.  They were, as I said in a line leading to a tent and some tables, staffed by about 10 volunteers.  I will never ever forget the feeling I had when I turned the corner and saw those people waiting for us. The thought I had was  this: “When there are hungry people who have been waiting in line after a devastating event, and you are arriving, and you have  food for them…that is  a very powerful experience.” I also remember thinking this is one of the most important things I have done.

We pulled up and the volunteers helped us unload the food.  Again, I will never forget the expressions of appreciation on peoples’ faces, and the verbal thanks people sent our way.

It was just an incredible feeling.

I am 70 years old and have had a lot of experiences.  But I have never been the one delivering food to 100 people waiting in line—I have never been the one bringing the food.  I shed a few tears as we drove home.

I know this is just one story among many, many stories, and of course you all have this experience all the time.  But I had never had it. And I decided I wanted to take the time to tell it to someone at the organization, just to reinforce in a personal way the difference you are making.

Please pass my sincere thanks on to your people. 

Take care, and thank you for making a difference.

All my best–


Greetings Colleagues in Disaster Response and Recovery,

I am consistently amazed by the stories of how your organizations are responding to COVID-19 and all the natural hazard disasters across the U.S. and U.S. Territories!

You inspire the best in people and bring hope and healing to those affected by disaster. As we lean into our upcoming Fall Member’s Meeting and workshops, I am reminded of our NVOAD Strategic Plan – Leadership Development, Strengthening our Collective Identity/Relationships , Technology and Data supporting our 4Cs, and Financial Sustainability.  We have been making great strides towards some of these goals and find that they mirror what our society and industry is aiming towards.

Currently, I reside in a part of New York City called Roosevelt Island.  Almost daily, I take a walk around the island, and when timed correctly am able to visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park. FDR penned these words in early 1941, “In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want…everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear..anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

In my mind, I correlate them with the 4 Cs of National VOAD – Cooperation, Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration – something to strive for every day knowing that some days…we get it right. 

A colleague recently forwarded me an essay by Kevin T. Smiley: Homes are flooding outside FEMA’s 100-year flood zones, and racial inequality is showing through. I read these types of articles very carefully to see if the premise is sound and if there are other underlying factors that the writer may have missed. This essay fails to mention that the Army Corps of Engineers sets the boundaries for the flood zones which are then presented to the community leaders for arbitration, review, and to challenge the newly included properties. If mortgaged, the properties added to the flood zone would need to seek flood insurance through the NFLIP – this possibly may be outside of the financial ability of the homeowners thus making homeownership unaffordable.  If the NFLIP is not renewed by Congress at an affordable rate – this could have an adverse effect on entire communities and force people from their homes. Community political leaders have understood this local nuance and so have not pushed for the expansion of flood zones in many communities – including in large amounts of predominantly black and Hispanic areas.

Participating in the (NEMA) National Emergency Management Association Forum, I was challenged by a presenter – Dr. Junia Howell, from the University of Pittsburgh. She relayed some of her work outlined in this article: “When the Big One Strikes, People of Color will be Hit the Hardest”. She has significant data to show that communities of color are more severely financially impacted by disaster due to home ownership valuation and Federal post-disaster funding. She further reflected on data confirming that white college educated homeowners will show an increase in overall wealth post disaster in comparison to homeowners of a similar demographic in non-disaster affected areas. However, college educated black and Hispanic homeowners will show a decrease in overall wealth post disaster. Dr. Howell’s statement to the emergency managers across the country was that, “Disaster systems/funding are designed to privilege the Privileged!”  A challenging statement to make to a primarily government audience in charge of allocating funding post disaster.

As our civil society continues to confront inequities within many governmental and societal structures, I want to make certain that National VOAD continues to provide information to our membership related to equitable distribution of disaster resources. As we engage our Strategic Plan in the area of Strengthening our Collective Identity and Building Relationships that we look at our systems, our resources, and our membership we take into account the ideals of equal voice…and vote.  Aligning actions with intentions – the National VOAD Board has established an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Taskforce, an AdHoc Committee for Membership/Dues, and a Governance Committee. National VOAD, as an association, must provide equity in all that we do and with the resources that we make available to our members. I sat with the final words of FDR this morning, “it is a definite basis for the kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” I look forward to hearing your voices at our October 27-28 Fall Member’s Meeting.


Greg Forrester

President and CEO

This grant allowed National VOAD to distribute $235,050 to 10 organizations.

The Lowe’s Reconstruction Grant Program was made possible through a generous donation from Lowe’s and was designed to enable the acquisition of reconstruction material supplies in recovery projects in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California. 

Jefferson County LTRG was awarded with $43,750 to establish an office space for the Southeast Texas Emergency Relief Fund.

In April of 2018 the LTRG grant assisted Long Term Recovery Groups (LTRG) as they worked with survivors rebuilding and recovering from the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. The 2018 Hurricane Harvey Texas LTRG Grant Program was made possible by The Prudential Center.  

$37,500 distributed amongst 9 National VOAD Members.

In November of 2018, the Island Recovery Grant Program was initiated by National VOAD. The grant was made possible through a generous donation from the UPS
Foundation and was designed to direct funds for recovery efforts in Hawaii, US Virgin Islands and American

Funding was specific to recovery efforts for the following events:
• Hawaii 2017 and 2018, All Disasters Events
• USVI 2017 Hurricanes
• American Samoa 2018, Tropical Cyclone Gita

Award amounts ranged from $500 to $5,000, and $27,000 was awarded to 8 different organizations across 3 States.

National VOAD was pleased to announce the Hurricane Matthew Recovery Grant Program in October 2017. The Hurricane Matthew Recovery Grant Program was made possible through a generous donation from the UPS Foundation and was designed to direct funds to the recovery efforts of Hurricane Matthew.

Grant awards were designated to support an organization’s recovery program operational needs, not for direct client assistance. Eligible requests for the Hurricane Matthew Recovery Grant included the following:

  • Supplies and Equipment Replace or repair lost/damaged supplies and equipment
  • Purchase new supplies and equipment
  • Travel and related incidental expenses for staff or volunteers deployed to affected disaster areas
  • Technology-Cell phones, computers, tablets, etc.
  • Operational Needs-Recovery program printing and communication needs.
  • Outreach Activities

In late 2016, National VOAD distributed $5,000 grants to six organizations working to help communities in West Virginia recover from severe flooding. The funding for this grant was provided by the UPS Foundation. Projects ranged from the purchase of mobile food pantries, to the photographic documentation of the damage, to the development of Long-Term Recovery Groups, to the building of homes.

In 1970, six faith organizations and the American Red Cross came together to address inequities of disaster response in the U.S. and formed National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD).

Progressing forward 50 years – NVOAD has become a venue for Cooperation, Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration (4Cs) across all faith communities, secular organizations, local/state/territory/federal government agencies, and private sector businesses.

NVOAD recognizes that communities can be devastated by human caused events or natural hazards; and that a disaster is anything that an individual or community cannot recover from on its’ own.

RACISM is a human caused disaster.  The deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery were murder.  We all must participate in this nationwide response! Our communities cannot recover without intentional ongoing directed response to racism. Lack of action is complicity.  There can be no Peace without Justice – no recovery without resources. 

National VOAD promises to be engaged.

COVID-19 has changed the world in which we live. As National VOAD members and organizations that are accustomed to working in chaotic disaster environments, this pandemic has presented challenges never before encountered. Though we have all participated in exercises that talk about a nationwide effect – I never envisioned a simultaneous activation of every State/Territory EOC; Federal engagement from every agency; closure of all businesses, faith facilities; an insufficient supply of PPE and medical facilities; and a worldwide lockdown of citizens. I still sometimes wondering if I am dreaming.

I have immense pride in our National VOAD members and your ability to embrace DIFFERENT! You have adapted to circumstances that change hourly/daily, created innovative programs and partnerships, moved to a virtual work environment, envisioned procedures to deploy volunteers safely, and worked together for the benefit of everyone affected by this pandemic. The linkages to philanthropy, government entities, and private sector support have never been as critical as they are now. Innovative partnerships have become the norm and we encourage you to explore new possibilities for your organizations. Please reach out to National VOAD staff for questions, conversations, and introductions as you explore mass feeding programs, medical outreach, childcare programs, educational materials, etc..

National VOAD was heartbroken to have to cancel our 50th Anniversary celebration and our National Conference in Pheonix, AZ. We had looked forward to seeing and learning from all of you. We continue to work on the Strategic Plan that you approved. We initiated the State/Territory capacity building project in the Midwest region and have recently expanded baseline analysis to the Southeastern states along with Puerto Rico/USVI. National VOAD identified additional resources – financial and in-kind – that we have made available to members. New organizations are being evaluated for membership by the Board of Directors. The Board is also convening a Diversity/Equity/Inclusion task force to be intentional in membership and leadership development. In the midst of COVID-19 response, a new National VOAD website was launched and we just signed a contract for the State/Territory websites. We hope that you have found value in the resources and support that we have been providing.

Though 2020 started with tornadoes and regional flooding – it has managed to create additional challenges with a nationwide pandemic and already two named storms for the hurricane season.

You and your agencies continue to innovate and adapt! As we have learned over our 50 years of NVOAD existence – none of us can do this alone! Thank you for the mission and ministry that you provide for the benefit our nation. Together we can overcome any challenge – lean in – lean on – and encourage one another!

Respectfully – with grace and peace,

Greg Forrester, President & CEO

By: Michael Rojas

I had an idea of where I saw myself in the future. This idea always ended with me helping those in need. I had always envisioned myself as an educator and one year, I saw it come to fruition. I was fortunate enough to become a Special Education Art teacher in my home state of New York. I began to think of what this potential future might look like one day. I saw the extent of the impact I was able to make in a short time on my student’s lives and wanted to branch out to something on a larger scale. It became clear my path was leading me directly to disaster relief.

Having no previous related experience, I understood finding the right opportunity was crucial. Luckily, I found one of the most unique listings that stood out from the rest. Habitat for Humanity of Iowa had created the first Habitat Disaster Mobile Response Team in the country. The team is a statewide resource, currently responding to the July 19th Marshalltown tornado, headquartered in Marshalltown, IA. In April 2019, we kicked off our repair goals with the Blitz Build: Marshalltown Hammers Back! This Blitz was at the top of our most successful events in the state – especially in an area that is not currently served by a Habitat affiliate. We were able to touch 36 homes, engaging almost 600 volunteers over 5 days.

While we continue to work on homes here in Marshalltown, we also respond to disasters across Iowa and support rural housing builds in communities that need our assistance. Midway through my AmeriCorps term, the Mobile Response Team heeded the call to deploy to South West Iowa in July 2019 to provide flood recovery to Mills and Fremont counties. Going down to Southwest Iowa was a revelation to me. It was one of the most incredible experiences that I had ever been a part of. We were joined by two other AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams in the Washington Conservation Corps and an NCCC team. It was a seamless integration into one cohesive ADRT team that understood thoroughly the principles of what it meant to be an AmeriCorps. Due to our work ethic, tenacity, and general leadership we were able to make our way through our work at a tremendous rate. The days in which I was exhausted in the 113-degree heat, I was able to lean on my coworkers and teammates. I was able to put what we were doing into perspective as I talked to the survivors that were relieved to see a friendly face. It was truly a testament to our teamwork and flexibility that we were able to accomplish so much in such a short time.

During our time mucking and gutting in a town called Percival, we had been dubbed their “Angels” by the local community members. During their organized “Clean-Up” day we worked with community members and other locals that had driven in across the state to contribute to the effort. With our ADRT team, we made quick work of what was originally thought to be a two-day event. We finished half of the schedule before noon and then almost finished the full agenda before the end of the day. It was a grueling hot summer day and the elements were an issue. In my mind, however, I couldn’t fight the urge to completely give all the energy I had that day to the town of Percival. I felt as if it would have been a disservice to their community who had rallied so beautifully in a combined effort to restore themselves to a new normal. I spent my breaks chatting with the locals and town officials. They had commended me for my efforts but in my heart, I knew that I needed no affirmation. This was what I had signed up for and this was the job that I had grown to love so dearly. The companionship and comradery that we had grown on deployment is something that I found to be irreplaceable. We had forged everlasting bonds through service, and it is something that I am truly grateful for every day.

Having seen these affected areas and to know what these survivors have gone through stoked a flame in my heart to continue disaster relief work and to continue to provide whatever support I can give. I gained the utmost confidence in myself to know that I have to ability to help others in these conditions and create bonds of friendship within an affected community. Not only had our team grown in a professional capacity but we had grown as individuals as well. This was an experience that had been one of the most powerful catalysts for growth I had ever been a part of. It is an understatement to say that being able to help the people of Fremont and Mills counties had been one of the greatest highlights of my life and for that, I am truly thankful.