Helping Survivors Help Themselves
All told, more than 121,000 people in the tsunami-affected areas have received Volunteer Minister aid — and more than 67,000 have been trained to provide it. Across the Indian Ocean, the number of survivors helped by Volunteer Ministers — and those who have since followed in their footsteps — exceeds 424,000.
Yet the Volunteer Ministers' aid is by no means limited to assists. They are trained to do much more, including teaching people how to learn, organizing relief and community activities, helping in food distribution and repair of damaged property, improving interpersonal relations and providing many other effective means of dealing with life's problems.
In Indonesia, Steve Carlson was a key organizer of relief and rebuilding efforts that continue in Banda Aceh and other battered areas of Sumatra.
A 34-year-old businessman who normally divides his time between offices in Florida and California, Carlson was moved by the enormity of the tsunami tragedy and resolved to do something to help the survivors he saw on the news.
Encountering turmoil on an unprecedented scale when he arrived in Indonesia, he soon found himself putting his administrative skills to use — an integral part of the Volunteer Ministers' technology. From a command post in the North Sumatran capital of Medan, he and a team of other Volunteer Ministers organized transport, housing and care for victims flooding into the city from outlying disaster sites.
On Call Worldwide
"We set up our headquarters in a Medan hotel to bring vitally needed organization and relief to the hospitals, which had thousands of people pouring in," Carlson told Freedom. "The need was so great that we ended up helping to set up several new refugee centers and hospitals in Medan and in Banda Aceh."
After the earthquake on the predominantly Christian island of Nias, lying off the west coast of Sumatra — parts of which had been utterly destroyed — the Muslim-oriented North Sumatran government turned to the Medan Volunteer Ministers' operation with a special assignment. They asked that a team go to the island to assay the damage and make a determination on the extent of aid needed for the survivors.
Once there, the team had just begun their survey of the devastation when one of Carlson's colleagues took the time to administer an assist to an ailing resident, bringing him great relief. The local Jesuit priest, Father John, who had cared for the island's residents for 34 years, witnessed the outcome and started to direct all the island's inhabitants to the Volunteer Ministers for assists. "It was a long day, but in the end I think we managed to help each and every one of them," Carlson said.
Carlson also coordinated the teams traveling to decimated Banda Aceh. At sites throughout the region, food, blankets and other supplies had arrived from various relief agencies, but nothing was organized to ensure they made it into the hands and makeshift homes of the victims.
As was spotlighted in the December 2005 issue of National Geographic, the Volunteer Ministers quickly set up aid stations in each location to ensure the needy got vital supplies and immediate attention. Observing their organizational abilities, Banda Aceh authorities asked the Volunteer Ministers to staff and manage a newly established trauma center there.
In Indonesia, as in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, the Volunteer Ministers trained thousands of religious leaders, nurses, students and townspeople in the area who now apply these skills for the benefit of survivors at local Volunteer Minister trauma stations. Today, bright yellow banners point the way to the assistance center in Medan, crowded with people seeking and providing effective help — a testament to a new spirit of cooperation. Hundreds of determined volunteers, community leaders, rescuers and survivors work together under the Volunteer Ministers' banner bearing their motto: "Something CAN be done about it."
As a measure of how prevalent that spirit of cooperation became among Banda Aceh locals, consider developments in the region's bloody civil war. Prior to the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami, that conflict had taken the lives of 15,000 Acehnese. But throughout 2005, rivals came together in the spirit of help and mutual respect — so dramatically, in fact, that they brought the strife to an historic end. On August 15, 2005, the Indonesian government and rebels signed a peace treaty, ending 29 years of war and terror.
"That," said Carlson, "is what makes it all worthwhile."