In the weeks following a natural disaster, the dust settles (literally and figuratively). New Jerseyans are heralding the “return to normalcy” that we have all been waiting for, as we sat on the edge of our living room couches during the worst hurricane that the state has ever seen. Most of us are breathing a sigh of relief.
Now, the real work begins. As a student affairs professional steeped in the tenets of service learning, my eyes have been opened to so many issues facing my students. Now is the time to reflect on what it means to be involved in service learning and community service activities. Should we send busloads of students to Far Rockaway to gut houses in unsafe conditions? Is it responsible to hold donation drives and collect thousands of items, only to discover that shelters and churches are overflowing with donated goods? How can we respond to the student organizations who have e-mailed us with dreams of hosting benefit concerts and comedy shows?
After weeks of thoughtful conversations with colleagues and friends, I have developed some helpful hints for partaking in the disaster response process within student affairs.
Educate yourself on the response process. There are varying stages to disaster response. In fact, disaster relief often occurs immediately following a disaster. Much of this work is addressed by first responders and emergency personnel, not necessarily student volunteers without equipment or training. Recovery is a longer process, focusing on rebuilding physical and emotional structures in the community. Our students will be needed for help in six months, two years, and 10 years – we will still be rebuilding the culture of our great state.
Identify “authentic needs”. After collecting hundreds of donations, my colleagues and I realized that many of our local community partners are no longer in need of certain items. Try not to assume that the Red Cross will take all of your used towels and jeans. Make a phone call to local community organizations and have those conversations, learning about what is really needed.
Remember the cause. While many of our New Jersey towns have been devastated by the hurricane, home builds and beach clean ups are not the only volunteer opportunities out there. Many families who have been affected by the hurricane were already in need, living in either impoverished or unsafe conditions. Reach out to any charity or cause that you can: donating a frozen turkey to a family has the same impact as rebuilding the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
Student affairs colleagues, New Jerseyans, friends: I encourage you to make the effort to engage in the recovery process, especially by reflecting and having conversations around this topic. We’re all in this together. Feel free to respond here or on Twitter @kristaknj.
The Jersey Alliance