November 18, 2019
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Nonprofits don’t want your junk: 5 lessons from a California wildfire volunteer

Allstate Agency Owner Linda Dahlmeier led a local effort after the 2018's devastating Camp Fire. Here's what she learned from volunteering on the ground.

In November 2018, the Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise in Butte County, California, destroying nearly 19,000 buildings and killing at least 89 people. As communities band together in the wake of disasters, there are effective ways to help them get through the toughest days and eventually back on their feet. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Linda Dahlmeier had decided not to seek reelection as mayor of Oroville, California. After two terms, she was ready to focus on running her Allstate agency, spending time with her grandkids and volunteering.

But on Nov. 8, 2018, two days after the election, Dahlmeier and everyone in Butte County, California, awoke to the sky-darkening Camp Fire that would level the town of Paradise–just 20 miles north of Oroville–and change life in that part of Northern California for years. As the scope of devastation become apparent, donations began flooding in from around the country and Dahlmeier, still mayor for a few more months, was asked to help set up Oroville as the receiving center for all the stuff as it showed up.

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“When you have something this large happen in rural America, you do not have the infrastructure or facilities to handle the overload,” Dahlmeier said. So, she and hundreds of volunteers set to work, opening the municipal auditorium to distribute goods, organizing sites for the Red Cross and other aid organizations and setting up long-term support for fire victims through the Oroville Hope Center, a local nonprofit. One year later, fires again rage across California.

Here’s what Dahlmeier wants others to know about how they can best help catastrophe victims like those in her community:

1. Don’t donate stuff you yourself can’t use.

When someone has lost everything, it makes sense to think they need anything. But people whose homes are gone still can’t use the expired cans in your pantry and stained clothes at the back of the closet. (The exception is organizations like Goodwill, which may sell unwearable clothes to salvage brokers–but ask.) “It takes work to sort all that stuff out from the usable things,” Dahlmeier said. That increases the time and manpower required to get usable goods to the people who need it.

It’s also important not to let your usable things go bad.

Say you want to drop off goods at a local nonprofit, but their doors are closed when you get there. Dahlmeier advises to try again later; don’t just leave your contributions outside. After the Camp Fire, well-meaning community members would drop bags of usable donations outside the distribution center when it was closed for the night, then rain would come through and leave clothes mildewed and food moldy, Dahlmeierd said.

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“Our secondary disaster was all the used stuff,” she said. “We had to sort the new stuff from the bad, then haul it away to our landfill, which ended up costing us money.”

2. Cash is always the most useful donation.

Cash gifts allow nonprofits to apply their resources where they need them most and can be the most effective. For example, a food pantry may be able to buy bulk items at a discounted rate, allowing your dollar to go farther than if you spent it at the grocery store. Or, an organization might pool financial giving to hire an employee with specific skills the average volunteer can’t offer, like bookkeeping or programming.

After the Camp Fire, the Hope Center saw such a surge in demand that it needed money to open a larger space in Oroville and eventually a second location in Paradise–and to pay employees to run them.

“We had great volunteers, but we didn’t have enough and they’d get burned out,” Dahlmeier said. “Having money to hire two or three people to see us through the next few years is key.”

3. Team up to have the biggest impact.

Dahlmeier loves when groups of her fellow agency owners work together to support a single cause. She’s seen firsthand how coordination can increase the effectiveness of the gift.

“If 5,000 Allstate agents gave $100 each after a catastrophe, it’d be $500,000,” she said. “Do you know what that would do for communities across our nation?”

It’s the same with volunteering. After the Camp Fire, a group of volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints came to Oroville to help sort through boxes of donations and, working as a team, made a big impression as well as a big difference.

4. Ask how you can help.

A nonprofit’s needs–and those of the people it serves–might not be immediately apparent. After the Camp Fire, some survivors lived in tents and out of their cars, others found hotel rooms and temporary houses, and some people moved in with friends and family. Because of the range of situations, their needs varied from blankets and sleeping bags for those in tents to gas cards for those who found housing hours away and were commuting back for work and school.

Dahlmeier said when fellow Allstate agency owners asked what she personally needed, often it was just verbal support. Her advice when a friend or family member is going through something difficult: Ask how they’re doing as well as how you can help.

“There’s not a lot of places you can reach out and get somebody to just love on you–and often you just need something like that,” she said.

5. Remember: The need goes on.

One year after the Camp Fire, the Hope Center still offers daily support to families in and around Paradise. They distribute water to the few (about 3,000 of 26,000) residents who have returned, since the water supply is contaminated from the fire. They provide food for families struggling with the cost of rebuilding. And they connected people in need with generators to get them through times when the power company turns off the grid in an attempt to prevent another disaster.

“The Hope Center is going to be front and center for the next five years getting these families put back together,” Dahlmeier said. “And they will need money a year from now, two years from now. It’s ongoing.”

Courtney Linehan

Allstate