Photo: Pictured above, Etowah Baptist Association Disaster Relief Team members Julia Ford (left) and Donna Skaggs (right) practice social distancing while volunteering to help the residents of Reece City who suffered devastation from a tornado on Sunday, April 12.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
Founded 50 years ago after Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster recently leapt into action on a local level.
Following the Easter storms that swept a tornado through Reece City last Sunday (Apr. 12), the Etowah County VOAD chapter worked diligently with the Gadsden Emergency Management Agency and first responders to provide services and hope when residents need it most.
Gadsden Public Library Director and VOAD Chair Craig Scott manned the volunteer reception center, or VRC, at Northside Baptist Church in Reece City. The VRC provides a central location for volunteers to gather, register and learn where (and how) they can serve in the most beneficial manner. After volunteers sign their names and contact information, Scott gives them a wristband to indicate to others they are working with VOAD to provide disaster relief.
The VOAD registration and wristband eliminates confusion, allowing storm survivors to easily identify individuals who arrive on their property. Rather than questioning each stranger that might show up to help, residents can quickly recognize that volunteers are working with VOAD to provide assistance.
“People want to show up and help,” said Scott. “They’ll show up to a property owner who has had their house destroyed and might look suspicious. [To avoid that] it’s been broadcast to residents that [VOAD] is registering folks and we send them out in an organized way.”
On April 13, Scott registered 135 individuals determined to help Reece City heal. Volunteers focused primarily on debris and disaster cleanup, performing tasks like clearing trees from homes and roadways and applying tarps to roofs. Volunteers gathered on Sunday night, with some staying until Monday night. A continuous cycle of giving developed in Reece City, and as volunteers contributed their time and efforts to others, others did the same for them.
During volunteer hours, VOAD provides meals for individuals helping in disaster relief. On April 14, First United Methodist Church in Gadsden packaged lunches, Attalla Jack’s donated 75 chicken finger boxes and Southside Baptist Church cooked dinner for the volunteers working in Reece City. Scott maintains an updated VOAD master list with names of individuals and organizations available to help when a crisis occurs. Scott understands that of the 167 names on his list, each person or group brings a different strength to alleviate a burden.
“Depending on what their strength is, they’ll hop on a request or not,” said Scott. “The Catholic Center of Concern feed the homeless. They have food available and clothes, but they’re not set up for something like [Reece City]. People have to go there. I got an email from the director there, who was feeling really guilty because he couldn’t help. I said ‘No, you help! You help in a different way.’”
While people are eager to help after a disaster, not everyone is physically able to provide the assistance required to clear tornado debris or repair property damage. VOAD’s donation reception center or DRC opens greater doors for people to get involved, allowing individuals to contribute who otherwise might miss out on ministering to their community. Depending on the type of disaster and the aftermath’s detriment, VOAD cooperates with the EMA and operation center to determine the community’s needs. VOAD creates a list that circulates throughout the volunteers, who then bring needed items to the DRC where they are organized and distributed to appropriate households. Scott suspected that Reece City’s DRC might activate next week.
Scott’s involvement with VOAD began in 2012, after an advertisement for Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, caught his eye in a newspaper. Focusing on local neighborhoods, CERT teaches people who wish to assist after a disaster how to help properly. Scott participated in six weeks of classes to become an official CERT member, learning essential training that educated and equipped him with the best response methods to remain prepared and useful during crisis situations.
“If [Reece City] was a bigger event, the EMA would be calling their CERT members,” said Scott. “We don’t pay a fee; we’ve just gone through training. We could be the ones out at the intersections to step in and direct traffic. We’ve learned basic search and rescue and basic triage. If a huge disaster like Tuscaloosa  happened, it’s just overwhelming for first responders. So, then CERT people go into action.”
While working with CERT, Scott learned that downtown Gadsden lacked a storm shelter. A Michigan native who sheltered in his childhood home’s basement during tornados, Scott wondered if the Gadsden Public Library’s cement and steel structure would suffice as a proper shelter. After contacting former EMA Director Mike Bryant, the Red Cross and EMA examined the GPL’s basement and confirmed that the library would provide ample storm safety for Gadsden residents. As acting shelter manager, if a tornado watch is issued, Scott drives two blocks from his home and opens the library basement to people and pets alike. Whether storm clouds gather at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., Scott keeps his ears open to answer the call for help whenever it may arise.
“It’s a great sense of giving back,” said Scott. “I can sit in my office at the library and talk books all day long, but libraries across the country have had to change. We’re not a place for old dusty books anymore—we are a community center.”
Through CERT and his service as shelter manager, Scott became a VOAD Team member and eventually chair. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, Scott’s local VOAD chapter extended its resources to help the Salvation Army with food supplies, the Catholic Center of Concern, Mercy Depot, First United Methodist Church, Love Center and Way of the Cross. Individual VOAD members have even assisted in purchasing and delivering groceries for homebound residents.
VOAD volunteers flooded into Reece City from all locations in Etowah County and surrounding areas, wearing masks and maintaining COVID-19 protocol while lending generous hands. Reece City Mayor Phil Colegrove commended the wave of volunteers that poured into the community and was in awe of how strangers felt compelled to help someone miles away.
“People that are out here volunteering deserve all the credit in the world,” Colegrove said. “What makes somebody drive from the other side of a county to go help someone for nothing, I don’t know. They just showed up.”
The Etowah Baptist Association Disaster Relief Team coordinated groups to disperse aid throughout the city. EBA Disaster Relief Team members Julia Ford and Donna Skaggs recognize how disasters never just affect material things. The two considered the emotional distress Reece City residents feel right now, praying for healing and comfort.
Reece City Council official Gail Minshew registered with VOAD on April 14, driven by her passion for the people in the city she calls home. A Reece City native, Minshew lives in a homeplace built in 1905—the same house where her father was born. Minshew moved away for some time, but when she returned to Reece City, she rediscovered a desire to stay. Minshew’s roots are planted in Reece City, like generations before her and generations to come. The people in Reece City represent a spirit of resilience that perseveres, and a community united to lift neighbors up in hope, regardless of what challenges might arise. Determined people prove that a storm will not uproot Reece City and with kind volunteers at each corner, the community will grow once more.
“It takes the coordinated efforts of all to provide the needs at hand,” said Minshew. “In our area at large, we have such a wonderful effort when a community is in need for others to come in. It’s about the people. To put yourself aside and focus on the needs of others…that’s the important thing, what we should all be about. It’s all about people loving people and people caring about people. People matter—that’s it.”