Want to Help in a Disaster? Get Involved Now

Image Credit: Tracy Fu
A woman who lost her home and all her belongings in the Border Fire accepts a blanket from a Tzu Chi team member. The woman, who also lost her home in 2007 and was helped by Tzu Chi, told members she hopes to help others by volunteering with Tzu Chi after she settles into a new home.

Disaster preparedness is about more than stocking up on supplies. Getting involved is part of getting ready.

“We like to say that emergency management is a team sport,” said Holly Crawford, Director of the County Office of Emergency Services. “It takes the involvement of volunteer groups, faith-based organizations, non-governmental organizations and private business to achieve disaster resiliency. In a catastrophe, we know government cannot possibly do it alone, and so I encourage you to find a way to help the greater community once you have your personal preparedness actions completed.”

When a disaster happens, many people who are not directly affected may want to help. But because of possible dangers and the complexity of an incident, spontaneous volunteers are usually discouraged. If untrained or unaffiliated with any organization, they can be problematic to first responders.

If you know you want to help, you should get trained in advance and become affiliated with a humanitarian organization that is active in disaster response and recovery. In that way, the organization can provide emergency response training and advance screening, which will expedite things during an emergency.

After our recent disasters, the County has turned to a solid network of volunteer organizations to help with disaster relief. You may be familiar with some, but one group whose members arrive wearing uniforms of blue polo shirts and white pants is less well known, despite its regular work here.

Tzu Chi is an international humanitarian organization that seeks to help relieve suffering. At its Sept. 13 meeting, the County Board of Supervisors honored the group for its efforts over the years assisting wildfire survivors, including the 2003 and 2007 firestorms and, most recently, the Border Fire.

“The planning for and responding to disasters requires a strong network of community partners which include Tzu Chi USA,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob as she declared it National Preparedness Month and Tzu Chi Month for September. “The Board of Supervisors is recognizing the crucial role of Tzu Chi that they play in times of disaster by providing disaster relief and assistance to San Diego communities.”

Tzu Chi was honored by the County Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 13 meeting.
Tzu Chi was honored by the County Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 13 meeting.

It was difficult at first becoming known as a humanitarian organization in San Diego, said Tzu Chi San Diego Service Center director Peggy Joh. A group of Buddhist Taiwanese volunteers started the center in the garage of one of the founding members in 1993. At first, the group helped Asian communities mostly, but they wanted to reach out to everyone. In 2003, after the devastating Cedar Fire, Tzu Chi went to a Local Assistance Center to offer its help but was turned away because no one was familiar with the organization. Undeterred, the group worked independently to provide financial assistance to fire survivors.

Ultimately, the larger Tzu Chi organization formed a partnership with the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties and through them became affiliated with the Voluntary Organizations Active in a Disaster (VOAD), and the local offices followed suit. Now, Tzu Chi is called upon in an official capacity to help survivors.

For the most part, Tzu Chi raises money to provide financial assistance and needed items such as food and blankets. But they also offer compassion, caring and an open ear for disaster survivors to share their stories. During the year, they also provide food services for homeless.

“We don’t have any paid staff; everyone is a volunteer,” said Joh. “We always believe that when you give, you get back but in a different form.”

They tell disaster survivors that although they may have lost everything they own, survivors can pay forward the help they’ve received when they’re back on their feet. Tzu Chi gives each survivor a bamboo bank. The idea is they’ll fill it with coins then return it to the organization so it can use that money to help other disaster survivors.

A Tzu Chi team check up on a woman who had been ordered to evacuate during the Border Fire.
A Tzu Chi team check up on a woman who had been ordered to evacuate during the Border Fire.

“(This month), I got a call in our service center, a 2007 wildfire survivor, and he said he got his bamboo bank full and wanted to drive over and donate it to us,” she said. “And so the circle of love continues, as aid recipients become the givers.”

Robin Clegg, president of the San Diego VOAD, said the collaboration of 40 voluntary organizations works with the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services to help provide community resources in a disaster. Any nonprofit, nongovernmental organization can request to be a part of the collaboration, she said. The administrator just needs to let VOAD know what skill set and capacity for help the group can offer. VOAD members also need to attend meetings to learn about how VOAD works.

“The most important part of being a continuous member of our team is that we build relationships,” said Clegg. “So, when I am calling an organization, like if I am calling Peggy from Tzu Chi organization, I know Peggy knows what she’s talking about and can deliver. If a random organization comes in and says they can, we don’t know that. Reliability and relationships that are built through participation are the most important to me.”

You can also get involved through participation in one of numerous Community Emergency Response Teams, or through law enforcement volunteer groups such as the San Diego Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue, or through a nonprofit organization such as the American Red Cross or a faith-based organization.

Before jumping in to get involved, make sure you and your family have the other recommendations for personal preparedness covered. Create and update a family disaster plan. Put together an emergency supplies kit. And stay informed, by signing up with AlertSanDiego, the county’s emergency notification system, as well as downloading the County’s SDEmergency app.


Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact