Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Community building in times of crisis

I've been meaning to post this for awhile -- with the disasters in Burma and China, it seems even more relevant now...

Through the initiative of some friends of mine from Seattle Works, I am now trained to be a shelter volunteer at the Red Cross for King and Kitsap Counties. What exactly is a shelter volunteer? Think of it as those folks who provide emergency, short term shelter for those displaced for any number of reasons including fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, wind storms and any number of other disasters that target the Pacific Northwest.

Admittedly, I knew nothing about what I was getting into when I learned about this opportunity. Mostly, I thought that it would be a nice way to give back locally following so many different natural disasters. And given that shelter is one of the most basic of needs, this seemed to be a great place to start.

The training is made up of three different sections to go over how to care for the masses, the basics of sheltering, followed by hands on simulations. Through each of the sessions, we learned about what it actually takes to plan, prepare, run and manage an emergency shelter. While it was great to learn the specifics roles, tasks and skills required for a shelter, I did not expect to learn about community building in times of crisis.

For years, I always defined community as the result of intentional interactions between people with similar experiences, interests, etc over time. Time, in my definition, never really crossed my mind in terms of a short term, temporary situation which is the desired norm for emergency shelters. Yet, despite the relative brevity of the duration of a shelter, a great deal of work and planning goes in to designing opportunities for community to occur. Whether its through organized activities for children in the shelter, or getting a shared sense of ownership from the clients there by involving them in the operations...there is a concerted effort to make it as vibrant of a community as possible.

This, along with the paper plate notion of relationships has me thinking differently about community. I'm not really sure where it will lead me, but the notion of time -- especially for extended periods -- does not seem to be as important as I once thought it to be.

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