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Is Volunteerism Still Strong in Nashville?

October 1, 2010

Yesterday, Jeff Tang at Newschannel 5 published a story with the headline “Volunteerism Still Strong Nearly Six Months After the Flood.” I confess I was a bit surprised by the headline, for there has been general agreement throughout the flood relief community that the pool of local volunteers working regularly on rebuilding projects has pretty well dried up.

As I read the story, I discovered that it was not focused on the rate of volunteerism in Nashville as implied, but rather focused on a single cleanup project at which a local corporation brought a large number of employees to assist with. It was commendable work for sure, and the willingness of Cummins to sponsor 90 employees engaged in recovery efforts is greatly appreciated. However 100 volunteers working on one cleanup project is a drop in the bucket of the pool of work that needs to be done, and the general consensus of backroom opinion among flood recovery leaders is that it is the generosity of groups from outside of Nashville and corporate groups that is providing the lion’s share of labor in rebuilding. Individual volunteerism has all but disappeared.

Yes, in the early weeks of the flood, Nashville’s volunteer spirit shown through. While some corporations like Cummins, Best Buy, and Amerigroup sent groups to work, the majority of folks walking through the doors of the Volunteer Deployment Centers like the one we ran in Southeast Nashville were individuals and groups of friends who took off work and came to help their neighbors. We could not have done the great work we did in those early weeks without these individual volunteers, which allowed us in the very first days to assess damage before anyone else, and jump on cleanout work in record times. But, for very good reasons, individual volunteers began to drop off over time. As has been true in other cities going through similar situations, out of town, largely faith based, groups who specialize in disaster recover began to arrive to help with the heavy lifting of rebuilding work. Most disaster relief agencies affirm that these groups are key in having a successful rebuilding effort, and that certainly seems to be the case now.

Yes, volunteerism is alive, but it’s not especially from folks that live in Davidson County. You see, the trash piles have been hauled away and the weeds have grown up over the debris so for the average, non-flood affected Nashvillian, the floods were a distant memory as we have moved on to other things. Flood survivors look around, and discover that the folks that are providing assistance these days are from Georgia, Iowa, and Michigan, not Sylvan Park, Belle Meade, or Green Hills. Yes, corporate groups are engaged at some level — not that of before — and groups like Amerigroup have been crucial in providing both labor and funding. But for the most part Nashville continues to struggle to find enough volunteers to meet current needs.

So Jeff, thanks for telling us about the good folks at Cummins who gave of themselves to clean out the watershed in Bellevue. But don’t think for a second that this signifies in any way the level of volunteerism still needed in Nashville. We still have a long way to go and we  especially need skilled tradesmen and women to step up and help out. Volunteerism hasn’t gone away, but it’s not especially strong either.

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