Success Stories

Success Stories (view all)

Oso and Beyond: The Story of the Volunteer Centers of Washington and their Crucial Role

Oso and Beyond: The Story of the Volunteer Centers of Washington and their Crucial Role

Some time Saturday afternoon, March 22, Michelle Morris over-heard her sister respond to a news report, “Oh, no, there’s been a big mud slide in Oso!”  Michelle knew of Oso, but could not be sure if the slide site was in Snohomish or Skagit County.  Which county of Washington the slide occurred in made a big difference to Michelle—Senior Manager for the Volunteer Center at the United Way of Snohomish County (UWSC).

Within a few hours, news of Oso was dominating television broadcasts.  Michelle recognized one speaker as John Pennington, Director of Emergency Management in Snohomish County.  That told her that she was on -- the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) management plan she had helped design would soon be put into action. “We’re having a disaster here…I bet I get a phone call,” she thought.

Michelle had always imagined that “the big one” would be an earthquake, but it didn’t matter.  She and fellow staff member Amy Franklin had set up systems that would work for either. They had pre-trained volunteer leaders who could man the volunteer stations, and had all the registration forms and releases. The call came early Monday morning, as Michelle was driving to work in a dress and heels.  She heard from Mary Schoenfeldt, Public Education Coordinator at Everett Office of Emergency Management: “I think it’s time to activate the VRC.”  Michelle turned around to change into jeans.

Volunteers had started pouring into Oso, carrying their shovels and wanting to help find survivors.  But those in charge of emergency crews were working to understand the best places to concentrate on digging, coordinating professional emergency crews, protecting the scene, and ensuring that people’s belongings and effects were not damaged or scattered.  In addition, the breaking up of gas tanks and septic tanks by the slide made the area hazardous—crews had to be properly clothed and protected, as well as have their legal rights assured.

Michelle and Amy were sent to two different sites– one in Arlington and one in Darrington, on opposite sides of the slide.  Their “plan” had called for one central volunteer center, but they quickly began a process of adapting.  They gathered forms, clipboards and pens, and set up a schedule for the five volunteer managers who had been trained to staff the stations.  Michelle and Amy stayed to help, and everyone began processing the names and skills of those drawn to Oso.  In the volunteer business, they were charged with what are called the “SUVs”—spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers.

On the evening news, the rest of us saw Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots, looking more and more haggard.  Relatives were arriving from Pennsylvania, Florida, and Italy.  Fire departments were driving up from Bellevue. Assistants were running to the local hardware store to get more duct tape, so those in the mud could have their pants legs taped up and their boot tops protected from contamination.

The Volunteer Center staff was also on call to handle needs rescue crews did not have the time for, like buying the initial groceries to feed workers, and calling in the Green Cross Field Traumatology--mental health experts who could counsel the survivors.  They tracked down drinking water, and organizations that could supply coloring books for children.  They listened to survivors stories.

By Wednesday the National Guard had arrived, and professional food handlers were preparing meals for the workers. By Thursday donations were pouring in.  Michelle and Amy dealt with boxes of food, and a variety of less useful goods, like a pallet of high-lighter pens.  They got ‘”tons of stuff,” but not necessarily what was needed.  “We needed hazmat materials, like goggles and duct tape; we got teddy bears,” says Michelle.

There were also struggles with jurisdiction, especially initially. The locals wanted to “take care of their own,” which was understandable, but there were hard feelings among those pouring in from elsewhere, wanting to contribute.  In retrospect, Michelle wishes she had set up relationships in advance with individual communities, using trained volunteers, and established relationships of trust. However, it would be hard to cover all jurisdictions in a county.  

Volunteer Centers of Washington Passes on Funding and Helps Enable Volunteering

United Way of Snohomish County Volunteer Center is a member of Volunteer Centers of Washington (VCW), for which Michelle serves as President.  VCW is a statewide association of volunteer centers, all of which link those wanting to volunteer with appropriate local opportunities.  The centers use specialized computer software to establish the best match of volunteer skills to non-profit agencies, and help train volunteer managers to make the most of volunteer time, ensuring a successful pairing for both the individual and the agency.

For the past four years, VCW has been funded largely by the Volunteer Generation Fund (VGF), a program authorized by the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.  VGF includes Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Social Innovation Fund, and is administered in Washington State by the Washington Commission on National and Community Service.  VCW has passed along most of the funds it has received the last four years to individual volunteer centers.    In 2013 alone, member centers referred over 10,140 volunteers, with a reported 258,000 service hours. This equates to $5.7 million added to the state’s productivity, according to the Independent Sector.

United Way of Snohomish County used their “mini-grant” to set up their plan for an emergency Volunteer Reception Center.  Just over the county line, the Skagit Volunteer Center, part of Community Action of Skagit and also a Volunteer Centers of Washington member and recipient of VGF monies, served as the main food collector for the stranded Darrington food bank. 

In several instances, the VGF grant has been a volunteer center’s primary source of funds: United Way of Thurston County opened their volunteer center with VGF monies, and the Upper Columbia Volunteer Center funded their first staff member, and brought in other VCW members for peer support and training. Both centers quickly helped staff local homeless shelters, among other work. Thurston also provided volunteer management for the Olympia School District, and used volunteers to increase donor gifts.

The more established centers within VCW this year increased their ongoing relationships and postings, fulfilling a variety of community needs.  The Volunteer Center of Whatcom County now has 250 partner agencies with an average of 130 volunteer opportunities posted throughout the week. These cover mentoring children, salmon habitat restoration, providing chore services for low income adults with disabilities and the elderly, and reducing homelessness.

Clark County Volunteer Connections places volunteers in schools, and provides assistance in offices and medical and dental clinics.  United Way of Pierce County Volunteer Center works with food banks, children’s activities, and services for veterans.  Seattle Works fosters a lifetime commitment to community involvement in young adults through innovative volunteer activities and educational opportunities, including specialization in board training. 

United Way of King County provides the most comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities in King County, and specializes in helping companies establish employee volunteer programs, training future community leaders and volunteer managers, and connecting volunteer readers.  Also, as part of the UWKC’s goal to promote more skills based volunteer opportunities, they created a skills based volunteering webpage focused on the needs and interests of potential volunteers.

The Volunteer Center of Kitsap, Lewis and Mason Counties (recently expanded from just Kitsap) has close ties to the nearby military bases, and works with agencies from the American Red Cross to the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Children of Nations, and the Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties. Among its other varied work, the Volunteer Center of Kittitas County partners with Compassion Closet, a local community clothes closet for foster families/children, the Kittitas Environmental Education Network, Kittitas County Friends of Animals, and Kittitas Valley Health Care.  

Oso and Beyond

Weeks after the Oso mudslide, Michelle says she has learned, first of all, to not give out her personal cell phone number (she ended up buying special “pay as you go” phones that she could pass off to volunteer managers who were on call.)  She also urges all organizations that are apt to be on call in a disaster to think through their role, and the path of authority.  Who is in charge in any town or county?

Share this Story: