PLATTSBURGH — United Way of the Adirondack Region Inc. is developing a program aimed at better coordinating and preparing the region’s volunteers for disaster situations.
The Disaster Preparedness Program will be an extension of the existing North Country Regional Volunteer Center and, like the center itself, will serve Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.
“This program really is a collaboration and emphasizes partnership to a great extent,” United Way Executive Director John Bernardi said at a media conference Monday at the organization’s Plattsburgh office.
As part of the effort, he noted, United Way will be working with numerous government agencies and nonprofit organizations, including the American Red Cross, departments of emergency management and mental-health agencies, as well as tradesmen and professionals, in each county.
“We’ll be working closely together with them to help recruit and train and place volunteers,” Bernardi said. “We will be seeking their advice and guidance along the way.”
The program is funded by a $50,000 grant from the New York State Commission of National and Community Service, which, he noted, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was instrumental in helping to secure.
The Regional Volunteer Center was originally developed to increase volunteerism across the state and was very successful in doing so, garnering over 1 million volunteers, according to Amy Kretser, outreach coordinator for United Way of the Adirondack Region.
“When Gov. Cuomo saw the need to enhance the disaster preparedness in terms of volunteerism, he added a grant onto to the same structure of the (North Country Regional Volunteer Center) across the state that would allow us to use the infrastructure that’s already been so successful at recruiting volunteers,” she said.
SETTING UP DATABASE
The program will establish a database, making it easier to coordinate help in the wake of a natural disaster or human-made crisis.
“When we have a crisis, people come out of the woodwork and want to help ... and sometimes that’s really difficult to engage them because it’s a difficult time and they’re not sure what skills they might bring to the table,” Bernardi said.
“So we’re trying to coordinate this in advance of that and have a database of particularly skilled volunteers.”
That database will compile volunteers with a range of skill sets needed to assist people with issues that remain even after the initial crisis is over.
“It will just be having a central source, which United Way is so good at, for somebody to be able to call and say, ‘This is what my need is today,’” Assemblywoman Janet Duprey said.
FOLLOWUP TO FEMA
Oftentimes, when a disaster is declared, FEMA will come in and assist with short-term recovery efforts, which, Bernard noted, the agency did a great job with during Hurricane Irene.
“But they finished their work, and they left, and then they asked us, as a long-term disaster recovery group, to finish the job, and what we found was ... people had numerous unmet needs that FEMA couldn’t address,” he said.
Long-term needs, Bernardi continued, include everything from home repairs and assistance with transportation and employment to mental-health services.
“It’s after a disaster, in the recovery phases, that actually our mental health comes into question, and that has very long-term impact, even after the house is rebuilt or the building is now with good foundation,” said Behavioral Health Services North Marketing Director Bonnie Black.
She added that her agency is pleased with the United Way’s recognition of the importance of mental health in recovering from traumatic events.
When it comes to providing volunteers with disaster-preparedness training, United Way will work with the network of organizations to find out what their needs are, Kretser said, “and if they can provide us with the training, we can implement something that would be meaningful to volunteers.”
Another component, Bernardi noted, will be developing United Way’s long-term disaster recovery group into official Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
These are widely known as the groups that manage the recovery process, bring a coordinated effort and open up gateways for funding, particularly through the faith-based community, Bernardi continued. Two or three of the groups will be established in the seven-county region.
Both he and Duprey noted the Disaster Preparedness Program is not in any way intended to interfere with the great work of the area’s first responders.
“We want to be a resource for them,” Bernardi said.
Duprey said the North Country does collaboration and cooperation better than anyone else, so this program is a perfect opportunity to expand on that.
“We’re going to take what we already do incredibly well and make it even a little bit better,” she said.
Email Ashleigh Livingston:firstname.lastname@example.org