Boots on the Ground: Haiti and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission
By Laura Wise*
This article is the first in a series of special coverage commemorating the 5-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. Stay tuned for the full series.
Iowa, the Great Flood of 1993. North Carolina, Hurricane Floyd, 1999. New York City, September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of each of these disasters, Rev. Tom and Rev. Wendy Vencuss of the New York Annual Conference were there, helping communities to recovery and get back on their feet. Even this long and committed experience, though, would not prepare them for the events of January 12, 2010.
In Haiti for partnership meetings between the Methodist Church of Haiti (EMH) and Methodists from around the world, Tom and Wendy can recall their exact location—at the Methodist Guesthouse in Port-au-Prince—on that quiet afternoon when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the small Caribbean country. When it was over, one thing was clear; Haiti needed help. “Boots on the ground,” Tom dubbed it, speaking of the role of volunteers in relief efforts.
Tom was a natural fit to serve as a coordinator for the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) program in Haiti. He and Wendy had been coming to Haiti for years, spending months at a time there. In November 2010 they moved in and remained in Haiti through August 2013. While Tom coordinated the work of volunteers, Wendy, an emotional and spiritual care consultant with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), took on the role of accompaniment, working with local communities through the spiritual challenges of recovery.
Established Relationship, New Responsibilities
Tom and Wendy’s journey with the Haitian people began in 2002, when they founded Mountains of Hope—a ministry of the New York Annual Conference—in the small, rural community of Furcy. For many years, they worked tirelessly with the residents of this resource-poor community to build their capacity to thrive. The Vencuss’ focus on sustainable community development positioned them well to partner with UMCOR after the earthquake. Tom mobilized volunteers to repair damaged structures, provide business training to local communities, and support a hot lunch program for school children.
Shortly after the quake, the Haiti Response Plan (HRP), a three-year partnership among EMH, UMCOR and UMVIM to coordinate recovery efforts, was formed. Una Jones, associate general secretary of Mission Volunteers, spoke of the importance of timing. “UMVIM teams have been going to Haiti for more than 50 years. We had to hold off [from sending them] in the beginning, in order to plan a strategic process.”
This plan, the HRP, consisted of three key components, she said. “First, it allowed the EMH to define their priorities. Second, the partnership between UMVIM and UMCOR was designed to provide matching grants for the money raised by each volunteer team. Third, the plan required a ratio of two hired Haitian workers to every one foreign volunteer.”
Jones highlighted how pivotal the HRP model was. “It was the first of its kind. It helped all partners to think strategically and take ownership for this shared ministry.”
The program, which organized United Methodists to give their time and talents in short-term mission, allowed the church to mobilize volunteers in a new way. Between 2010 and 2013 UMVIM Haiti equipped more than 4,000 volunteers to work in Haiti through the HRP before it transitioned to local leadership, lead today by Carine Odilus, the EMH VIM team coordinator.
“The UMVIM program started as a grassroots movement,” Tom said. “While we [the church] had national and international organizations, they didn’t really engage volunteers. The UMVIM program changed that.”
The In’s and Out’s
Not only did the UMVIM program assist in rebuilding through volunteers; it also provided a vehicle for sustainable development efforts. “And, like what typically happens with the VIM program, there was an immediate response—literally thousands of people waiting to come in-country to do work,” Tom recalls.
Tom also shared some of the critical elements of volunteer management he faced in his role. “We took a hit when books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts came out. We had teams come in and, during the orientation, their first question would be, ‘I just read Toxic Charity. How are we not destroying something here?’ When you work with the local communities and you listen to them and begin to develop a relationship and true partnership, you can avoid those pitfalls.
“Having an established program like UMVIM allows you to work through a system,” he continued. “It provides continuity, a certain structure, a certain set of guidelines. Unfortunately, the image of volunteers is that they drive down the road throwing money out of their cars. By having programs like this [UMVIM] in place, we can make sure a lot of these problems don’t exist, or reduce the probability that these things will happen.”
Tom is no longer the UMVIM Haiti coordinator; he is back in the U.S., working with the New York Annual Conference on its post-Hurricane Sandy recovery program. The HRP strategy contemplated the successful transition of the volunteer program to EMH. All volunteers who sign up to work in Haiti now work directly with EMH for resourcing, logistics, assignments and so forth.
“One thing that isn’t always recognized is the incredible wealth of skill and experience that volunteers bring. Medical and dental work, amazing educational work, teaching and care ministries—like what Wendy provides—vacation Bible schools; they help fundraise, they help resource; many just need direction,” said Tom. Volunteers have undoubtedly been an integral part of the rebuilding process in Haiti.
Tom and Wendy, the entire UMCOR staff and EMH are extremely grateful for the outpouring of volunteer support over the last five years. The work of volunteers in Haiti is an outstanding example of the power of our connection as a global church.
Tom and Wendy leave us with a challenge: “As a mission community, let’s see how we can begin to train and best use the resources of volunteers moving forward. And to all who gave their time and talents to help rebuild Haiti, thank you.”
*Laura K. Wise is a mission intern serving as a mission communicator with The General Board of Global Ministries at its New York City headquarters.