There’s a lot to do after a disaster. Some non-profits primarily exist to step in and help. Friends reach out. Businesses and individuals with necessary clean-up equipment and skill jump in. Then there are many others – people who want to do something but don’t want to add to mayhem. They want to respect people’s process. So, what can they do?
- Consider the wider circles of people helping, such as, insurance agents, businesses who stay open to serve people on the front lines, people who will be serving a lot of people living the trauma, such as convenience store employees. Stay out of the way of first responders, law enforcement, government officials, utility companies. Deliver cookies, sandwiches, or something simple to people in the wider circles. Avoid delivering food that must be eaten right away, needs prep or refrigeration, etc. The thoughtfulness and smile is more important than the item.
- Email a Starbucks or other gift card for a special treat. It’s not something the person needs, but they are likely focused on immediate needs. Giving a familiar splurge item can help them take a short breath. You can also personally deliver a treat, but your timing might not be convenient. If you stop by, keep it brief, give a hug, and let any conversations be guided by the person or need, not your own curiosity.
- Listen well to needs, then take action behind the scenes. Find the right people to help; facilitate and equip more than trying to personally solve every problem. Go shopping for and deliver the items you know they need. Include receipts or offer to make returns for them. Be practical in what you purchase, but a small extravagant item to help them feel cared for in a personal way is nice sometimes, such as, a shirt with a favorite slogan or a personalized coffee mug with specialty coffee (if a coffee maker is easily available). Consider a gift card for a movie theater or favorite restaurant. They might not want to use it right away, but it gives them something to look forward to.
- Be careful with donations of material goods. Keep it simple. Meet specific needs. Dealing with piles of donations takes space and energy people often don’t have. Cash and area gift cards are more convenient for people to use in ways they most need.
- Make a meal. If the person has electricity, take a Crock Pot meal. It can be eaten at any time and stay warm for multiple people’s schedules. Or take sack lunches or something else with no assembly or preparation needed. Keep it simple to consider a variety of personal preferences.
- Keep communication brief but consistent. Check in to remind people you care, but don’t expect a response. Listen to needs, but keep questions to a minimum. Try to limit the decisions you ask someone to make. For example, you might ask, “Does anything specifically sound good to eat?” If the person can’t easily process and answer, take the lead: “I’ll run by _______ and pick up _______. Is there anything you need or want while I’m out?”
- Be aware of boundaries. Get out of the way when other priorities/people are more immediately pressing. Broaden your perspective. It’s not about you or even how you would want someone to respond if you were in a similar circumstance. Take cues from the specific person, situation, and overall needs.
- Be careful not to criticize others who are making decisions. For example, “Why would they not want volunteers?” or “Why don’t they want donations?” We don’t have all the pieces of information. That’s not to say you shouldn’t speak up if something is being done poorly. Simply choose the best way to speak up. Find out the facts. Respectfully direct questions to someone in or close to leadership, being mindful of the limited time they have. Express concerns, but also be willing to help, fill gaps, and serve in areas that help people in leadership, even if those areas are not your first choice.
- Check your sources. Refuse to share until you check the facts. Sharing is easy, but rumors and misinformation are hard to sort through and stop as they ripple across social media and around neighborhoods.
- Respect people in need. Give them space when in the grocery store or workplace Let them know you are available, but don’t bombard them with questions and make them relive the details and memories. Give them space to breathe. Listen well when they are ready. Help when it’s convenient for them. Some people need you to step in and make a lot of decisions. Others need to make many decisions for themselves to regain a bit of normalcy and dignity.
Know recovery is a long process. Even when material stuff is easily fixed and replaced, emotional recovery can take a very long time. Be patient. Be present. Serve humbly.