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Disaster Corps volunteer stories

Tom Dickinson

Tom DickinsonTo begin, I have been involved with Habitat for Humanity as a volunteer house leader and crew leader since 1988, not only with the local affiliate, but with the Jimmy Carter Work Project. I have gone to locations as diverse as Sri Lanka after the tsunami; Plaquemines Parish after Hurricane Katrina; Springfield, Mass., after a major tornado; and Atlantic City after Superstorm Sandy.

I live in Springfield, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., where my wife and I spend time singing in the church choir, serving on the church missions and outreach committee and leading two or more disaster response or recovery trips a year. Our children, now young adults, joined us on many disaster recovery trips, especially to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

While I live in northern Virginia, I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. One of our family values was that we learned to fix things ourselves. My father always found projects for us, whether for our home or for our summer cottage. That was great early preparation for the work ahead. Little did I know how important it would be to have some basic skills in carpentry.

Likewise, it is a church family value that we serve God by serving others at Messiah United Methodist Church. We have included high school students and their parents on volunteer disaster response trips so that they could have a unique service experience to provide disaster-affected individuals and families direct construction support.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I had already responded to disasters in Virginia, including major flooding in Franklin from Hurricane Floyd and in Gloucester Point from Hurricane Isabel. I led volunteer teams to help those communities recover for extended periods of time. Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast provided me with the opportunity to offer early response assistance and to plan for recovery within small communities. I was able to connect with Habitat and other volunteer organizations and see firsthand the need for strategic planning. When I attended the first training for the Disaster Corps in 2007, I could apply lessons learned from experience working at the ground level, help integrate the connection to community and other agencies and help identify unmet needs.

I have had opportunities to serve as a Disaster Corps volunteer in deployments to Lucedale, Miss.; Plaquemines Parish, La.; Springfield, Mass.; and Atlantic City, N.J. Each time, I offered my expertise in planning, organizing and facilitating important rebuilding efforts, while learning new lessons from the situation at hand.

There is a disaster mental health concept that no one who experiences a disaster is unchanged. I believe that my deployments have enabled me to respond and support those affected with more compassion and understanding. In some small way, my prayer is that this provides them with hope, something very necessary in recovery.