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Associated Press
A small statue stares out from the wreckage of the Rosedale Community in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Thursday, May 5, 2011. Authorities continue the search for victims among the rubble over a week after a killer tornado decimated the town. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

TUSCALOOSA, ALA., — For the past few days, Kelsey Tokunaga and Ashley Vomund have been happily wielding paintbrushes and sporting smudges of khaki green, gray and brown paint in their hair and fingernails.

The teens, ages 18 and 17, are volunteers with a group from St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Incline Village, Nev., and have spent their spring break helping a small Alabama town recover from last April's devastating tornadoes.

It's the first time the teens have been to the South, been addressed as "y'all," and worn shorts at night without freezing. But giving service? That's nothing new.

"Our church focuses on service," says Vomund. "And my family has always pushed for volunteering constantly. That one moment where you see someone smile because of something you've done, big or small, that makes it all worth it."

Throughout the country and around the world, religious organizations and their volunteers are constantly rushing to aid and empower victims of natural disasters, war and civil unrest.

Working alongside devoted government and private organizations, these religious group volunteers haul branches, mop up floodwater, feed and shelter entire communities and empower victims to rebuild. And while their individual faiths prompt them to act, Mennonites and Mormons, Baptists and Buddhists will put aside doctrinal differences and just go to work — having discovered that they work better when they work together.

Just ask Tokunaga, a Buddhist and honorary Episcopalian for the trip with her best friend Vomund.

"There's a bigger community than just your religion," she says. "(When churches work together) it should show people that it shouldn't matter what religion you're from. We're all the same, and we should all treat each other equally and try to help anybody that isn't as fortunate as we are."

Coordinating efforts

On Aug. 14, 1969, Hurricane Camille formed and quickly gathered speed over the Gulf of Mexico. By the time she crashed into Mississippi's coast, her 190 mph winds flattened entire cities and killed 259 people.

"(Everyone) ran to the community to help because the community was in need, but we also all got in each other's way," said James McGowan, associate executive director of partnerships at Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster or VOAD — the agency that was formed after Camille to better coordinate disaster response between agencies.

The group has grown from seven to 50 national members, and includes religious groups such as Catholic Charities USA, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Mennonite Disaster Service as well as private-sector organizations such as the American Red Cross, Humane Society of the United States and The Salvation Army.

When a disaster strikes, agencies check in with their local, state or national VOAD to make sure they're not duplicating efforts. If they are, the groups then look at working together.

"We (tell) people when they come around the VOAD table to take your hat off and think not of your agency or church, but think of the greater good of the survivor and what can we bring to the table for the disaster survivors," McGowan said.

And each religious agency has different skills and resources to bring. Some provide immediate clean up, like the national Jewish response team NECHAMA. Others, like the Southern Baptists, are known for their mobile kitchens, where they prepare food often provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other groups, such as the St. Patrick's Episcopal Church, come in later and partner with agencies like Habitat for Humanity to rebuild.

"(VOAD is) an organization that works to build partnerships and collaboration," says Jim Stein, executive director of NECHAMA. "Because the primary mission for all of our organizations is to make sure the disaster survivors are given the help they need as quickly as possible."

Faith in action

A few weeks ago, Maggie Nelan was in Kentucky with a group of NECHAMA volunteers, pulling down the remains of houses left splintered by recent tornadoes.

"(Service) is something I grew up with," said Nelan, a Ph.D. student at the University of Delaware and a practicing Catholic. She's also mucked out flooded basements in Margaretville, N.Y., and built composting toilets in Haiti. "I was taught from a young age to do what I could for people I need. It's a way for me to practice my faith as opposed to just telling people about it."

Nelan has volunteered with a variety of organizations, but was impressed with NECHAMA's openness to volunteers from any faith background, as well as their helpful on-site training.

"It's a highly rewarding experience," she said. "Some of the best people I've ever met have either been other volunteers or the people we're helping. It's just a way to put yourself out there and do good."

"Our volunteers are frequently transformed," Stein added. "They're coming face to face with disaster and survivors who have literally lost everything. They see that what they do really does make a difference."

Volunteers with the United Methodist Committee on Relief train for eight hours to learn the basics of disaster response, such as how to stabilize and secure homes and how to work with survivors, says J. Rollins, director of marketing and communications for UMCOR.

Then, they're asked to go out and embody the words of United Methodist's founder John Wesley: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."

"It is living up to this standard," Rollins says, "that allows for successful disaster relief and recovery."

Serving to empower

Tom Price still remembers his son and daughter coming to him with arms full of toys, clothes and a cupcake. "Dad," they told him, "when you go to Haiti next time, take these things with you."

Touched by his children's generosity, Price, the senior communications manager with Catholic Relief Services, gently told his kids there were better ways to help.

Rather than paying huge shipping costs to send items that may or may not be what's needed, CRS tries to "source materials locally to boost the local economy," Price says. "Part of our work with (individuals) is to build them up, so they're not going to need CRS personnel there forever."

In dealing with HIV in Africa, CRS provided education and treatment for hundreds of thousands of Africans then turned the issue over to their Catholic partner in South Africa.

"We're lifting these organizations up so they can do it themselves," Price says. "That's a long-term solution."

CRS also partners with other religious organizations in that lifting, like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whom they've joined to build shelters for thousands of people in the Philippines who lost their homes due to massive flooding in late 2010 and into 2011

The LDS Church is providing the materials while trained CRS volunteers help Filipino homeowners build the shelters.

When Episcopal Relief & Development goes into an area after a disaster, they want their long-term recovery assistance to always involve the locals.

So their project in Haiti to rebuild 180 household latrines and 145 wood and metal homes gave 945 native Haitians access to short-term employment and a sense of ownership in their recovery.

ERD and the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti also created a "cash-for-work" program where individuals are paid to remove rubble, rebuild roads and ditches, reinforce walkways and hillsides against erosion — and thus far have employed 1,468 individuals and benefitted more than 7,300 family members, according to "Haiti One Year Report."

Along with the help of fellow organizations, churches also rely on the goodness of their own members when disaster strikes — allowing individuals to grow as they serve each other.

After the recent earthquake in Chile, the LDS Church called on members there to share food storage with neighbors until help could reach them, and members in Ethiopia have made hygiene kits — bags of soap, toothbrushes, etc — to send to refugee camps in their country and elsewhere.

"I think one of the best things that we do as a church is reach out," said Lynn Samsel, director of humanitarian emergency response for the LDS Church. "We're interested in our neighbor and we want to reach out and help relieve suffering and provide service. Our whole welfare program is built on the fundamental principles of being self-reliant, caring for the poor and needy and serving others."

Email: sisraelsen@desnews.com