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National VOAD’s Call to Action Following the Killing of George Floyd & Ahmaud Arbery

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.

By: Richard Morris, Regional VAL

Like our partners, we at FEMA are adapting to life in this pandemic environment. While we may not be able to meet in person right now, the VAL team is committed to supporting our partners in any way possible as you work on the front lines to serve impacted community’s, not just by COVID-19, but from natural disasters as well. We’d like to share with you the story of one of our Region VI VALs, Richard E. Morris, as he adjusts to working remotely.

My name is Richard E. Morris and I have the honor of being a Regional VAL. I’m stationed at FEMA Region VI in Denton, TX where our states are Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

There are 3 words I could use to describe how I am adapting to working in this COVID-19 environment: interesting, challenging and rewarding/humbling. Since March 21, I have been deployed to our RRCC, both virtually and physically. Even before I was deployed to the RRCC, as the virus began sweeping through our states in the region, I found myself busier than normal as State VOADs and other partners began having calls to discuss response and recovery efforts.

For the past few weeks, I have been supporting the RRCC virtually where I have found that coordination and communication have been difficult to adapt to. To make those two things more difficult, we had to almost learn to adapt to them quickly after leadership informed us to start working from home without much notice – but that is what being an emergency manager is all about, being flexible.

For me, the communication and coordination piece has had many moving parts as policies within our own region, the RRCC, and even HQ, can and has changed, where it can be sometimes difficult to keep up with what the most recent guidance is. We hold regional IA Weekly Branch Calls as well as daily team check in calls which has helped me, and our staff stay up to date on where things are.

Adapting to this new work environment has been challenging and interesting due to the size and scope of the event. Where sometimes there might be two disasters within Region 6 that might have disasters going on, all five of our states have been effected by COVID-19. This has made it somewhat difficult as the VAL and Mass Care person working the RRCC as all states have State VOAD and Mass Care/Feeding/ESF #6 Calls. Many of the calls have been either been daily, 3x a week or once per week. Adding other calls from HQ, Region 6, RRCC and beyond have forced me to adapt in being flexible and being “on top of my game.”

Lastly, I would say adapting to this COVID-19 work environment has been rewarding and humbling. I say this because not only has this virus changed the way I work at FEMA, but it has also changed how I (and the general public) go about my daily life. With stay at home orders in place where I live in Dallas, restaurants, movie theaters, sports, etc. have either been cancelled or shut down until more guidance has been given by local officials. It has made me appreciate all the things life had to offer prior to COVID-19. Right now, walking my dog outside in the park, especially after working a 10-hr. day feels like Christmas came early two-fold. I also say it is rewarding and humbling because unlike many others, I am employed and still able to provide for myself financially. To sum it all up, working this COVID-19 event, even with the challenging work environment it can present, being able to assist our States and VOAD Partners with resources, donations and just simply letting them know you are with them every step of the way always puts the biggest smile on my face.

The trees are changing, hurricane season is in full swing, and our Fall Members Meeting is around the corner. It must be Fall. At my house, that means taking the air conditioners out of the windows, mowing the lawn for the last time, raking leaves, storm windows – and a few last rides on the motorcycle.

This weekend I was able to do just that and a few thoughts came to mind about National VOAD and the road that lies ahead. I remembered my instructor who advised our group that was learning to ride for the first time – his mantra – ALL THE GEAR , ALL THE TIME. That meant, for our safety and the best chance for survival – we wear boots, pants, motorcycle jacket, gloves, and a helmet – every time we go for a ride.

I can remember gearing up for my first muck out of a flood damaged home – rubber boots, two layers of gloves, a Tyvek coverall, N95 mask, and safety goggles – all the gear, all the time. How do we begin to translate that into what we do to resource the members of the National VOAD movement from an administrative approach?

First – we have the 4Cs : Cooperate, Communicate, Coordinate, and Collaborate – remember you are not alone. You have partners in this work/ministry of disaster response and recovery – it should be your first thought as you head out to respond – just like putting on boots – think of who you can be working with to aid survivors.

Second – National VOAD approved our new Strategic Plan for 2019-2023 with four main areas of focus:

Leadership Development Throughout the Movement (Tyvek coverall/pants): We must be constantly learning about better ways to deliver services to survivors and communities. Online training platforms, after action reviews, publishing white papers – sharing leading practices. How do we become more intentional about raising up new leaders and expanding our reach – as members and as an association? 

Technology and Data to Promote the 4Cs and Tell our Story (Gloves): Working with Visionlink – NVOAD has launched three modules on our DART platform for use with our State/Territory VOADs. I would like to say that we have trained 16 VOADs on the modules but …we have had limited success in getting agencies to register in the platform – BEFORE disaster strikes. We need your help – how do we help you register and utilize it – preparation is required. We will also be announcing our new website at FMM – it is exciting to see the capabilities to it will have to increase the telling of your stories. 

Strengthening Our Collective Identity and Relationships (Jacket): We continue to grow in membership both Nationally and within our State/Territories. The movement towards COADs in many states is creating local engagement in all areas of disaster of preparedness through mitigation. Private sector and government acknowledgement and participation with our VOADs is evident. How do we intentionally make certain that we are seeking from all areas of our communities? We have a new staff person at National VOAD – April Dembeck is tasked with working with our State/Territory VOADs. She and Amelia Mendizabal will be reaching out to you to develop a baseline of where we are and challenging us to go further.

Funding Sustainable Growth (Helmet and mask): National VOAD has been approached by and is in conversation with several fundraising organizations seeking to fund vetted disaster response organizations/nonprofits. The Board has been very cautious to make certain that we are not in competition with our members but provide a means for NVOAD and all our members access to financial resources to do their work. A few of the organizations we are speaking with are: America’s Charities, GoodNation, and GlobalGiving.


National VOAD – in 2020 – will be celebrating 50 years of Service! That is a lot of riding time but in order to continue our path forward – with intentionality – we must look to the horizon and see how we can build on the 4Cs and implement our strategies to make certain we get there safely together! Our communities are depending on us for another 50 years. ALL THE GEAR – ALL THE TIME.

Respectful and thankful for all you do, Greg

I grew up in a Mennonite community in Kansas. Even as a youngster, I recognized that Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) was something special. With frequent tornados across the Sunflower State, it was common on a Sunday morning to have someone get up in church and announce that MDS needed volunteers to respond to a neighboring community. In my little world, I thought MDS was the only organization of its kind.

In April, I was hired as Communications Manager at MDS. In many ways this is a dream job, to bring my years of communication and marketing experience to a non-profit whose mission and values so closely align with my own. But this has been an eye-opening experience.

Hurricane Dorian is my first disaster. I looked at the notes posted from various National VOAD calls and FEMA reports and saw the list of organizations ready and waiting to respond: Church World Service, American Red Cross, Knights of Columbus, Operation Barbeque, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Team Rubicon, The Salvation Army, United Methodists, Convoy of Hope, Church of Latter-Day Saints, Church of Scientology, Convoy of Hope and so many more. I first read this list with wide eyes and said, “Wow!” Then, I read this list again, this time with a lump in my throat and again I said, “Wow.”

Regardless of our theology or even if we HAVE a theology, how wonderful that we can all set that aside, join hands and hearts in a united effort to bring aid and hope to those whose lives have been shattered by a natural disaster. Deeply moved, I sat for a moment taking this all in.

Together at the VOAD table, and together out in the field responding, we recognize and respect our differences. We deeply trust each other’s areas of expertise so that we can stand united in compassion for the people who need our help. We are able to love our neighbors impacted by disaster because we have, for longer than I ever knew, been loving our neighbor organizations responding with us.

My dream job is now even bigger, even more important. All of us involved with VOAD are more than just “active in disaster.” From what I’ve seen during my short tenure, I’d say, together, we make a profound difference in disaster response and recovery.

Again, “Wow.”

-Jesse Huxman, Mennonite Disaster Service

As we move toward Conference 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona, National VOAD will be celebrating our guiding principles: the 4 Cs. Communication, Coordination, Collaboration and Cooperation have been at the center of what National VOAD Members and Partners have done over the last 50 years, and we will be exploring just what that has looked like in the past, and evolved into in the future. 

The first ‘C’ that we will be celebrating is Coordination. Always at the center of what we do, the past few months have shown the ability of National VOAD members and partners to effectively coordinate in the field and beyond. From the Bahamas, to Alaska, to Texas, National VOAD members spent the summer of 2019 coordinating efforts to provide relief and recovery assistance.

Despite National VOAD’s focus on the United States and it’s territories, the devastation that Hurricane Dorian inflicted on the Bahamas provided the opportunity for National VOAD members and partners to show how they coordinate. Working together to make the best use of their capabilities on the ground in order to quickly, and efficiently serve survivors. For Airlink and new National VOAD member ITDRC, this style of coordination came easily. Due to Airlink’s efforts to get ITDRC teams on the ground before, and after Hurricane Dorian passed, ITDRC teams were able to establish communications at Grand Bahama International Airport, setting up a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) system that allowed for the coordination of relief on the island. ITDRC also teamed with IsraAid for a special mission to reconnect a small group of survivors remaining on a remote Cay on the East end of Grand Bahama Island. Despite our national focus, our members ability to coordinate internationally shows the strength of the VOAD movement.

In Alaska, the President & CEO Greg Forrester and a group of Long Term Recovery Group subject matter experts spent a week visiting Long Term Recovery Groups, and Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COADs) in and around Anchorage. Assisting to coordinate work at the National, State, and Local level, this trip showed how the National VOAD governing body can assist in coordination. Their efforts to help coordinate relief between LTRGs on the ground in Alaska will provide a smoother road for communities affected by the devastating earthquakes and flooding that occurred last year.

Tropical Storm Imelda saw the State VOAD in Texas leading the coordination charge to bring relief to communities, many of whom had only just recovered from the devastating flooding wrought by Hurricane Harvey. Texas VOAD led coordination calls daily, ensuring that there would be no duplication of effort amongst National VOAD members responding in the area. National members worked hard to coordinate relief efforts in Texas within their own organizations, ensuring that volunteers and supplies were flowing in to communities that most needed them. We saw examples of that from Team Rubicon, the American Red CrossOperation Blessing, and many more.

These are just a few of the many stories of coordination from the summer of 2019. As we continue through the year, there will certainly be more examples, and we encourage you to share them with us. It is important to show each other, and those outside of the National VOAD movement what it is we do, and why it is so vitally important. 

“Not all those who wander are lost” J.R.R. Tolkien

I continue to be amazed at all that our member organizations are engaged in and get accomplished …and I love to get to share those stories with local, state, and federal emergency management and private sector partners. Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of traveling the country and talking to many of you about how we can improve collaboration, and coordination amongst our members. Strengthening the VOAD network is a constant focus for National VOAD, and my experiences in Texas, Florida, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico showed that we are doing just that.

In January, I was invited by Points of Light to share our volunteer engagement experience with the Corporate Service Council (CSC) – a group of corporations that are looking to engage their employees in meaningful ways in communities that have experienced disasters. This was followed by a meeting in Austin, TX to discuss disaster case management with many of our national members (TX VOAD, TX HHS, TDEM, FEMA). We were also joined by representatives from Puerto Rico interested in developing their case management processes for their survivors.

In February, several NVOAD members were invited to give a briefing for senior military staff atNORAD/USNORTHCOM in Colorado Springs and engage in dialogue about military assets working alongside voluntary agencies. The military leadership was particularly impressed at the scope of the capabilities of VOAD members, and your ability to put out quality situation reports. Our ability to seamlessly interact with different branches of government is an asset that we bring to our members and improves our network’s abilities on the ground.

From Texas, I was invited by the Florida VOAD to travel throughout the state to view the damage. I attended the Florida Governor’s Conference for Emergency Management, and met with Ken Skalitzsky from Volunteer Florida. Gabe Tischler of Catholic Charities hosted me for dinner, and Lesli Remaly of FEMA taught me everything I needed to know about local LTRGs. In addition, I had the opportunity to drive from Orlando, to St. Augustine, to Daytona Beach, the full length of the Florida Keys, and then back to Orlando – amazed by the amount and geography of the damage from the storms. These experiences show that a large, multi-layered network of State, National and Government partners is propagating the VOAD movement. Seeing this assures me the VOAD network is resilient and working.

I then traveled on invitation from FEMA to USVI to work with new LTRGs and assist in the reforming of St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John VOAD, and USVI VOAD. I met with our members on the ground – All Hands and Hearts, Lutheran Social Services, Episcopal Relief, Catholic Charities, UCC, and others who are working hard to bring some relief and recovery. Lots of assistance will be needed for many years and I thank the network of VOAD members currently on the ground for their dedicated attention to the needs of survivors.

March was speaking season. I was a panelist for the National Governor’s Association: Office of Best Practices, the National Council of Counties on Volunteer Engagement, and a think tank conversation on preparedness hosted by Concordia/AmeriCares. In addition, I also attended a Red Cross gathering regarding Canadian/Mexican cross border disaster response. Finally, I spoke at the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) forum. Everyone I spoke to at these events is interested in how to better engage with National VOAD members and include all of you in their response and recovery plans. Spreading our message in this way is a vital piece to growth for our association, and I was glad to hear that the National VOAD network is a crucial part of emergency plans across the country.

Finally, I traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with Puerto Rico VOAD and our members on the ground. While I was there, Puerto Rico VOAD and National VOAD collaborated on a gathering of members working in Puerto Rico to create relationships between local member organizations and national member groups. Promoting collaboration and communication on this level can be crucial to improving relief efforts and National VOAD is excited to play a part. During my time in Puerto Rico, National VOAD had exciting discussions surrounding building relationships for recovery with FEMA, the PR Manufacturers Association, PR Governor’s Office, PR Chaplain’s Association, and the PR Housing Authority!

There is no place that you are not welcome or needed! Please let me know how we can help get you connected…the work you do with survivors sets the foundation of everything we do. Thank you for the continued opportunity to make the 4C’s connect your capabilities to those in need.

Spring and Summer – two of my favorite seasons! For farmers, it starts with preparing the soil, planting the crops, and tending to them. For Disaster response and recovery people – it is preparing for flooding and hurricanes, potential tornados, and wildfire threats. Training and preparation is key to getting a good result.

Strategic planning is a process that intentionally guides an organization to make determinations on the directions that it wants to go. National VOAD embarked on this journey and began with listening sessions with our members in the Spring. We continued these sessions at the National VOAD Conference and identified three core areas of focus, people self-identified their preferences, and smaller working groups were formed. I hope that you had the opportunity to participate and will continue to add your voice to help articulate the future of National VOAD. We have some additional virtual meetings scheduled and the Board will meet in late August to work with our consultant. The goal is to present a new plan at the Fall Member Meeting in October. Thank you to all member organizations that submitted their Triennial Review documents. Evaluation of the material will be helpful in the strategic planning process.

The Spring presented some opportunities to look at new partnerships with corporations through the Corporate Service Council hosted by Points of Light and UPS. Corporate Foundations are looking to invest financially but also engaging their skills based employees in disaster response and recovery. As you look at your organization – how would you engage employees of corporations in your plans? Do you have capacity and capability? What types of skills would enhance your work?

In the area of new members – I met with a group called the AirCare Alliance – private aviation groups that do medical flights, air damage assessments, animal rescue, and supply drops. In the Hurricane Harvey response many aircraft were utilized to provide an airbridge to the areas of Beaumont and Orange. They were also utilized in Puerto Rico to open up some of the smaller airports for supply drops.

What opportunities could be opened by engaging these highly energized and equipped flight organizations in our disaster work? Legal Services Corporation (LSC) assists with legal aid and pro-bono attorneys for disaster survivors. They have recently formed a Disaster Taskforce and asked NVOAD, Red Cross, SVDP, Catholic Charities, and other nonprofits to participate and look at additional resources needed in the legal response to disasters. How could you utilize attorneys in your work with survivors?

Rolling into Summer – NVOAD has participated in conversations with several State VOADs regarding their organizational structures and how changes to their bylaws and operations might yield better results. We launched the TX Disaster Case Management Program (DCMP) with our members and initiated the use of the new DART technology platform. The Puerto Rico VOAD and National VOAD is facilitating a Summit in July for members with operations in PR – to better facilitate the use of resources in the recovery. There are two recovery documents regarding recovery planning in Puerto Rico that are being completed – one requested by Congress through FEMA and another independently by foundations in PR. We will make them available as they become public record.

Finally – Hurricane season is upon us with Hurricane Beryl and Tropical Storm Chis coming in from the Atlantic. Are your organizations ready for another busy hurricane season? Wild fires are affecting 13 states – can we assist on multiple fronts? Preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation along with cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration – THANK YOU for all you do! Please let us know at the National VOAD office how we can continue to assist you!