Having worked in many communities across the west, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Regional Operations Coordinator Jeff Koller was all too familiar with the strain and stress disaster recovery leaders live with each day. As MDS worked toward meeting people’s needs, leaders he met were feeling the effects of secondary trauma.
One such leader, Chris Files from Bastrop, Texas, had been through two wildfires, three floods, and a tornado – all in 5 years. When MDS asked her if there was anything else they could do to help, she asked if she could talk with people who had similar experiences. MDS decided to gather disaster leaders to support one another and share previous experiences. In September of 2016, MDS held a symposium in Wichita, KS which was attended by 7 disaster recovery leaders from 7 states.
Meeting together in person and hearing what everyone had been through was both heartbreaking and eye-opening. Wildfires, tornadoes, mudslides, and floods all have very different effects on the communities they strike, yet the process of getting back to a new normal is surprisingly similar. ‘Our disasters’ ranged from very small communities to large ones but had many common threads, including extreme situations of loss.
In 2011, an EF5 rated tornado came through Joplin, MO and killed 158 individuals, injuring more than a 1,000 and causing damages of $2.8 billion. Stephanie Brady and Renee White came to the aid of their community and listened to neighbors, learned about FEMA duplication of benefits, and took part in endless hours of meetings to get needs met all while trying to balance family and self-care. Some leaders, like Carlene Anders, had functioned in multiple roles. She was elected Mayor, serves her community as a firefighter, and also as the Executive Director of the Okanogan Long-Term Recovery Group following devastating wildfires in her town of Pateros, WA.
One thing became clear, this group of disaster veterans and masters of recovery were committed to helping others in similar situations. At the end of the weekend, the group decided to move forward with establishing a team of disaster recovery mentors who could support and guide communities new to disaster navigate their recovery. Since that symposium, the group has become a dedicated team of 10 disaster recovery leaders supported by an extraordinary advisory committee and board of directors. The team is grateful to MDS for bringing them together so they can now pay it forward.