Disaster Volunteers Receive a Warm Welcome in a Cold Climate

Located in north-central South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation recently became the coldest “hot spot” for disaster relief activity. An economically depressed area that suffered damage from a tornado, the reservation was in need of volunteers to assist with a variety of tasks before extreme winter weather set in.

After receiving an urgent request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for volunteers, Brethren Disaster Ministries joined other National VOAD organizations on a conference call to discuss needs, resources, and logistics. The call revealed the need for volunteers with a variety of specific skills including roofing, plumbing, electrical wiring, carpentry, CDL drivers, and backhoe operators.

Following the call, Brethren Disaster Ministries contacted several volunteers in order to put together a small team that could respond in less than a week. There were many unknowns going into the project, and volunteers were asked to be prepared to embark on a real adventure, and to be extremely flexible.

Having recently returned from meetings with FEMA officials in Washington, D.C., Brethren Disaster Ministries staff noted that the different agencies that were responding needed to rely on one another. Even though not many details were provided about the project, the agencies knew that they could trust one another to do their part. Brethren staff have observed the collaborative work and partnership between disaster relief agencies evolving in an impressive way, especially collaboration between nonprofit and governmental agencies.

With travel assistance from FEMA, Brethren Disaster Ministries sent four volunteers to South Dakota. The entire response lasted two weeks and involved approximately 20 volunteers from different organizations who placed multiple mobile housing units and prepared them for the upcoming winter months.

Brethren volunteer Larry Ditmars reported, “I came here expecting an adventure, and so far am really loving what I’ve found.” Ditmars, who has a CDL license, worked with local workers to haul mobile units from a staging area to onsite lots where they were hooked into utilities and winterized.

“We were Brethren. We were Lutheran. We were Mennonite. We were Christian Reformed. We were Hope Crisis. We were Missionary,” he commented, adding: “We were from Kansas, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Manitoba. We were outsiders! We were the Body of Christ united in one Spirit and one mission.

“The people of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe saw us and were amazed,” he said. “They never knew a group of outsiders could care to give that much. The caring, healing, loving hands of Christ were at work in us in that place.”

In all, over a dozen homes were prepared for families in need of housing. Volunteers were thanked by the Tribal Chairman, who hosted a dinner for them before their departure. Brethren volunteers included Jeff Clements, Larry Ditmars, Jack Glover, and Steve Spangler.

— Zach Wolgemuth serves as associate director of Brethren Disaster Ministries.

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