Volunteer Agency Liaisons
You may have wondered, what is a voluntary agency liaison (VAL)? Perhaps you've heard the words before or have seen "VALs" at meetings, but you are not sure what they do. With the number of disasters that have occurred in Texas over the last 12 months, the cadre of voluntary agency liaisons has been very busy, so we thought we'd let you know what they do and what they have to know in order to help the communities they serve.
VALs are employees of Texas Department of Public Safety's Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). (Currently, TDEM has one full-time VAL and three contract VALs on staff.) VALs work between the two worlds of emergency management and the nonprofit and faith-based community. They speak two languages; that of government agencies and of nonprofit organizations, and their main focus is to develop sustainable long-term recovery groups in affected communities in order to repair and rebuild lives following disasters. They work is akin to developing a business in the middle of a disaster. VALs must know a lot about Individual Assistance (IA) but also about Public Assistance (PA), mitigation, flood plains, FEMA programs, nonprofit organizations and services and what resources and programs are available at the local, state and national level. That's a lot of information and knowledge.
Bastrop County has had a sustainable long-term recovery (LTR) team in place since the 2011 Bastrop wildfires, and it is the poster group of how an LTR team functions and helps the community and emergency managers. Emergency managers support the LTR team as they are the ones who will be helping to repair the community, but they also play a critical role in removing barriers so that nonprofits can help. VALs have been able to develop more than 20 long-term recovery groups, teaching the basics of how to use donated dollars and how to access local, state and national resources so they can assist communities, bring families back home, increase tax bases and ensure family needs are met.
Here are stories from VALs about their experiences from the disasters and how they came to be a contract VALs for the state of Texas:
Courtney Goss became a state contract VAL in January 2016. She is currently assisting in Jasper, Newton, Orange, Liberty and San Jacinto counties following major disasters DR-4266, DR-4269 and DR-4272.
I vividly remember looking down the river from the Blanco River Bridge in Wimberley, Texas the morning after the 2015 Memorial Day flood. My heart was shattered. The massive cypress trees that had stood tall and strong my entire childhood were uprooted and tossed on the river banks like rag dolls. The sight of vacant slabs left behind, constant buzzing of circling helicopters combined with news of missing families washed down stream was just the beginning of a nightmare that our small community wouldn't wake up from. Our small quaint Texas town was shaken to the core.
My church, located directly south of the river was now functioning as an evacuation shelter and donation site where many would start to congregate each morning. On day two or three—they all start running together—as I walked through the door, I was rushed by a family friend and asked if I could help coordinate volunteers and donations on behalf of the church. Visions of the piles upon piles of bleach and water outside in the parking lot and the line of volunteers desperate to help flashed in my head. Me? I thought to myself ... No way. I am not qualified; this job is way too big.
She must have seen the self-doubt in my eyes, because she reassured me everything would be OK and that a lady named Anna Tangredi with all the answers would be coming. Little did I know then, but Anna Tangredi, state VAL, would change my life and my community forever. She brought a sense of calmness, strength, courage and hope to a city in its darkest hour. I attended meetings with city and county officials, and when Anna talked, everyone was in awe and listened. The wisdom and direction she tirelessly poured into our entire region is priceless, and I will forever be indebted to her.
In the end, I volunteered with the long-term recovery group, Blanco River Regional Recovery Team (BR3T), in Blanco, Hays, Guadalupe and Caldwell counties, volunteering over 50 hours a week for over 8 months. I found my calling, my life's work. We have brought in resources, such as "muck and gut" teams, clean up supplies, building materials as well as AmeriCorps, the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC), Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) resources, rebuild teams, case management and volunteer management to those who have lost so much, especially the most vulnerable populations, seniors, those with access and functional needs, and single parents with children.
Denise Treadwell was one of the first VALs to be hired in the summer of 2015. She is a resident of Wimberley and had been volunteering at the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) that TDEM set up at the request of the Hays County emergency management coordinator (EMC). She also had her children involved in helping. She is now servicing Blanco, Caldwell, Hays, Guadalupe, Waller, Wharton, Brazoria and Austin counties, but she also help to set up the Tri-County LTR team for Orange, Jasper and Newton counties. She has set up a multiagency resource center (MARC) in Hays and Brazoria counties and brought in resources to help the communities with things such as gift cards, clean-out teams, volunteer coordination, donation coordination, and thousands of dollars' worth of services into the communities.
I met an 82-year-old lady who was living in a wet, moldy home and sleeping at night on a wet mattress. Her husband died four months prior to the disaster, and with no remaining family, she had no idea what to do. I connected her with resources and services to ensure she would be in a safe living arrangement. These are the kinds of things a VAL does.
I saw the suffering and complete devastation of my community, Hays, and knew I had to do something. Volunteers by the thousands were streaming in, and I felt the need to help manage this situation to ensure all residents received help. I began volunteering within 24 hours of the disaster and pledged I would do all in my power to help restore my community. I found my passion for people and recognized I had the skills to help. My world exploded when I began working for TDEM. I had no idea about the FEMA process; about national, state and local available resources or how many nonprofit organization services were actually available at no cost to local jurisdictions. I learned more about mitigation and flood plains than I wanted to, but know I have to have this knowledge to help communities.
One of the saddest stories I remember is about an elderly couple who were evacuating from the flooding and following their older son to a shelter. The son's car got stuck in the water, but he insisted that his parents keep going to the shelter and he would meet up with them. The son perished in the flood, and the elderly couple was left with no support. I connected them with a case manager to ensure their needs were met.
Misti Townsend became a VAL in March 2016 following the Dallas tornadoes and extreme flooding in North and Northeast Texas. (Her contract ends at the end of July.) She began with the hardest hit area, Caddo Lake in Northeast Texas, where the resources were limited but the need was great.
After seeing the devastation and community-wide suffering from the December tornadoes, I felt 'the call' but had no clue how to help. I stumbled upon a new Facebook group the morning after the tornadoes with a shocking 11,000 members full of survivors and volunteers wanting to help. A group of strangers and I began seeing the links and making connections between the desperate pleas for help, safety, shelter or wood for warmth that filled the pages. By the end of the week, the group grew to 33,000 members who were offering resources from everywhere, but had no real coordination. From those days forward, I spent nearly 18 hours a day coordinating services. About two to three months later, Anna Tangredi, a member of the page, stated she had been watching me in the group for some time, and we talked about what my knowledge and ability could bring to the local jurisdiction. She said I could affect more lives at the '50,000 foot level than the 5 foot level.' I was hooked, and hired.
One painful truth of recovery is that communities are unaware of the countless resources available to them. After response is finished, the communities affected by disaster feel overwhelmed and alone, without knowledge of how to pick up the pieces. Most 'outsiders' go back to their daily lives and assume the community will be fine. For those uninsured or underinsured, that couldn't be further from the truth.
Critical unmet needs continue for many, especially for at-risk populations. That's where VALs come in. VALs teach community leaders how to join together and unite; how to create a long-term recovery team and pull in numerous local resources they're often not aware of. We help them connect them with state resources and put them in touch with countless nonprofit organizations that have the material, knowledge, volunteer manpower and the ability to meet basic needs and financial assistance to rebuild homes and lives.
One of Misti's favorite stories highlighting what can be done when these forces are brought together is about one family that survived two recent floods near Caddo Lake.
Heriberto Martinez, FEMA VAL, and I had been helping Harrison and Marion counties join together and create a LTR team. We showed them how to create a network of local businesses, churches and organizations willing to help, and we connected them to VOAD resources.
This particular family received $19,000 from FEMA, but their home was destroyed. With the money they bought a home in need of repairs for $17,000. Even though the family removed drywall and debris, they were still left with a home unsuitable for them and their three small children. It was without proper plumbing and had roof issues and exposed beams, among problems. Through the VAL, a network of partner agencies, nonprofit organizations and churches was created, and the lives of this family were changed. The group coordinated their efforts and was able to ensure that this family had a livable home for themselves and their small children.
Anival Henrickson was assigned to Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy counties along with the Corpus Christi/Coastal Bend area and began working for TDEM in March 2016. (His contract ended July 15.) He became involved in disaster work through his friend, Dan Franklin, Texas Crisis Resiliency Team, who referred him to Anna Tangredi.
As a licensed professional counselor, I had already been involved with crisis counseling, but I became interested in learning about the local VOAD and LTR here in the Rio Grande Valley. I met Anna about two years ago during the San Antonio mock airport disaster exercise and also at the volunteer resource training she conducted in the Rio Grande Valley last year.
The Rio Grande Valley had two groups, the VOAD and the Interfaith Alliance, but they weren't working together or with the EMCs for the area. Some of the outlying communities were not represented, so I offered the suggestion of establishing a group of co-chairs who represented each county, which they did. I've been working on bridging gaps and ensuring that client needs are met through case management and the coordination of resources along with inviting the local university and technical schools to look at developing an internship program that could assist the LTR with case management, construction and volunteers. My time as a contract VAL has come to an end, but I realize that my community still needs service and coordination. I will continue to assist the LTR and use my LPC to bring in social work students to work for my community. I will revert back to being a volunteer.
If we actually put a dollar amount to the services and knowledge a VAL brings to the community, I would venture it would be in the millions of dollars. The hardest part is finding those VALs with the passion for people and the communities in Texas. It's a family commitment because you miss holidays, birthdays, etc., because disasters know no time line.
Many EMC's have expressed their gratitude for VALs helping their communities, bringing in resources, helping to bridging the gap between services and government. While the government code identifies local government as being responsible for recovery, no one expects the county judge to build a home or find housing for people, that's where the VALs services become invaluable.
Texas has a great tradition of volunteerism. Thousands of Texans in hundreds of community organizations and faith-based groups in large and small communities across the state have played a crucial role in the safety and survival of their fellow Texans during disasters and emergencies.
However, when disaster strikes and volunteers and donations begin to pour into an overwhelmed community, VALs are the ones communities rely on to help support the government agencies and coordinate the nonprofit organizations so that all of the people, resources and materials aimed to help the community get to the right places.