Sunday, July 26, 2015

Light in Lembinwen

One of the things I've been trying to emphasize with the local congregations here is being a blessing within the community, both as individuals (at work, school, play, garden, etc.) and as a group. I've been encouraging them to find specific ways in which the church can focus on areas of service or ministry to make a difference in Jesus' name. Simply keeping your eyes open for opportunities to serve the community, coupled with prayers asking God to open doors, can work wonders.

One of the things Aiel and his family in Lembinwen Village (Southwest Bay, Malekula) wanted to do was assist the local "kindy" with some supplies. Government schools begin with Class 1 (1st grade), and so each community is responsible for running their own kindy program, which means they are often under-resourced. Aiel met with the kindy teacher and together they came up with a list of items that would benefit the learning of these 20 to 25 four- and five-year-olds (buckets, crayons, floor mat, wall clock, drawing paper, etc.).

Most of the items needed to be purchased in Vila, and we then shipped them to Malekula, including some posters that were sourced from the States. During our recent trip to Lembinwen, the kindy teacher and parents asked us to come see how they were using the resources that had been provided.

It was such a joy to see the kids benefiting from the donations, and I was proud of Aiel's family for putting the teaching into practice. The kids had literally memorized all of the principles and spelling of the information contained on the posters (days of the week, colors, 123s, ABCs, shapes, etc.), and were very appreciative.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Aid Distribution 101 … How we did it (Part 5)

We were grateful that the folks in Malekula and Santo islands were not seriously affected by the cyclone, being that they are on the far west side of the archipelago. Further east is the island of Ambae, and we were able to talk with leaders there and send a shipment of rice and tinned meat to help the locals get back on their feet food-wise. Thankfully the brethren there were not as hard-hit as other areas of the country.

Additionally, the island of Tanna in the south was hit quite squarely. I ended up making three quick trips to Tanna post-cyclone, in an effort to determine how best we could help the locals there. On those initial trips we were able to supply families with tents, tarps, and food items. As mentioned in a previous post, even the outer island stores stayed well stocked due in large part to Vanuatu’s pre-existing shipping channels, which made it much easier to ensure that everyone had access to food.

We work regularly with brethren in four different villages in Tanna, and it was determined that we needed someone on the ground there to help facilitate the distribution. Tom graciously accepted the position, which included him coming to stay with us in Vila for a week to help unpack goods from the Brisbane-originated containers, and box up things to send to Tanna. We initially sent 60+ boxes of clothing, bedding, toiletries, medical supplies, food, etc., to be placed in the hands of local leaders for distribution. I was pleased with the way they distributed these goods far and wide, and were a blessing to many people in their communities and beyond.

The church buildings in both Loun and Iatukun Villages were badly damaged. The Loun building was made completely out of local materials, and so within a couple of weeks of the storm, they had already picked up the pieces and reassembled their meeting place, albeit about 20% smaller than the original due to damaged materials. We are currently making plans to help them construct a more permanent building, and believe it will be serviceable by yearend. The building in Iatukun had a corrugated iron roof that was completely demolished, and so we were able to provide new sheets of roofing iron. The local Christians salvaged the old roofing iron to quickly piece together shelters and kitchens.

Housing was also an issue in Tanna, primarily because most of the houses were made completely from local materials … materials (bamboo, wild cane, coconut leaves) that will not be available again for quite some time due to the storm. Our solution was to provide a heavy-duty chain saw for the brethren to use to mill lumber from the trees that had fallen, ripping posts, rails, and planks to rebuild houses, kitchens and toilets. The chainsaw also came in handy as they undertook the huge task of cleaning up their gardens, as there were large tree limbs strewn everywhere.

Aid Distribution 101 … How we did it (Part 4)

As you continue on around the east side of Efate Island, Eton Village is located about a 30 minutes drive from Port Vila. Missionaries Tobey and Kathy Huff live on the church property, and were instrumental in cyclone relief there, especially in relation to food, water and housing. We coordinated efforts to some extent, but for the most part they handled the needs of the brethren and others in the village. In similar fashion to Etas, we delivered 20+ boxes of donated goods into the hands of the leadership, who in turn distributed the items as they saw fit. The members also worked together with Tobey to repair the church building, which lost one side of windows and one side of the roof.

Approximately 20 minutes beyond Eton is Epau Village.  Epau’s water system was offline for several days following the cyclone, and so we made water runs there as well. Thankfully, the system was functioning very quickly, thanks in large part to Bob, who is chairman of the village water committee and one of the leaders in the church in Epau. The water system in Epau consists of a series of pipes and tanks, fed by a fresh water spring about a mile up the hill from the village. There is basically one outdoor tap for every household/clan. We delivered water filtration systems to folks here as well, to ensure clean drinking water. In addition, we supplied food staples, tarps, nails, and soap early on, as they waited for the government rations to kick in. Most of the brethren in Epau lost at least one entire house, and so we were able to use relief funds to purchase much needed sheets of roofing iron, depending on how many they lost in the storm. Additionally, the entire roof of the church building fell in on itself, and so many local Christians worked together to get it replaced, along with the louvered glass windows.

Church building in Epau Village

Church building in Eton Village

Aid Distribution 101 … How we did it (Part 3)

Etas Village is located about a 15 minute drive from Port Vila. It is the poorest community that we work with here on the main island, with the majority of the residents “squatting” on government land. Etas is a village primarily because it encompasses the land for the municipal dump. There are no power or water facilities in the area.

Many of the church members from Etas spent the night of the cyclone hunkered down in the church building in Port Vila. I took them back out to the village the following morning, only to find their tin shacks in pieces strewn for miles. They slept at our house for a couple of weeks, working tirelessly during the day to pick up the pieces and rebuild their homes, kitchens and toilets. It was amazing to travel back out there every day or so and see the progress they were making. The word “resilience” just kept coming to mind.

I was very appreciative of the wisdom exhibited by one of the local church leaders, Sam, as we discussed how us outsiders could most effectively help with their needs. Along with other church leaders, he made a list of families to focus on, both members and non-members of the church in Etas, and suggested a course of action. The families had been able to salvage much of their housing materials (most of which where originally salvaged from the dump anyway), but they had a genuine need for sheets of roofing iron. Roofing iron is a great building material for Etas, because it remains somewhat portable (unlike concrete) … a necessity when you are merely squatting on government land, because you never know when you might have to pick up and move house. He requested that we provide each family with 4m sheets of roofing iron, with quantity based loosely on how many family members their were in the household. Furthermore, the families naturally fell into 4 distinct areas of the village, and he so requested that we strategically place polyethylene water tanks in these locations. Helping Hands International, a Stateside non-profit organization associated with Churches of Christ, sent us over 100 water filtration systems that were coupled with the tanks, to ensure clean drinking water for hundreds of people in Etas.

We re-used the list system (adding names as needed, based on local recommendations) when it came time to distribute goods from the two 20ft containers that came from concerned brethren in Brisbane, Australia. It was our job to organize and box up the goods, which we then placed in the hands of the local leaders to distribute amongst their communities as they saw fit, with little or no parameters set by us. They knew far better than us where the greatest needs were, and also had a better feel for the most effective course of action. To my knowledge, this system worked quite nicely, and resulted in the local church being able to do much good in Jesus’ name.

Some three months post-cyclone, it would seem that “normal” is on the horizon. Gardens are beginning to produce, shade trees have regrown their leaves, houses are basically rain-proof once again, and the water tanks are in place and providing water. We still make a water run every so often, when the rains don’t suffice, but for the most part everyone is back on their feet and headed in the right direction.

Some of the Christians in Etas pose with their new water filters

Aid Distribution 101 … How we did it (Part 2)

Our first priorities were rather obvious: food, shelter, healthcare. We were utterly amazed on both the housing and physical wellness fronts … houses were being pieced back together early Saturday morning (before the last of the winds had even died down!), and there were incredibly few injuries as a result of the storm (and “only” 11 deaths in a country of 250,000 - unbelievable statistic for a developing island nation that endured a super-slow moving Cat 5 cyclone). So, our primary focus early on was food and water. 

A saving grace for Vanuatu to bounce back so quickly following the storm was the fact that shipping channels and processes were already in existence. Vanuatu imports the vast majority of food and goods consumed, and so containers of rice and other staples were on their way early, practically before the storm even passed. This fact meant that there was basically never a shortage of food in the stores, even in the outer islands.  Of course, locals are not used to having to purchase 100% of their food, and so there was definitely a need for assistance. Thankfully, there was little-to-no looting or similar crimes in the aftermath of the storm.

We made the rounds early on, mostly in person, visiting with our friends and family to see what types of assistance we could provide. The government was able to formulate a food distribution plan fairly quickly, but it was (understandably) a bit slow to implement as a primary step in the process was taking an impromptu census in all affected areas in an effort to ensure equality in any and all future distributions. Many churches, aid organizations, and private citizens were instrumental in filling the gap during the crucial first few days.

I should also mention, on the food-front, that the locals were keenly aware of the need to go to their gardens as soon as possible to salvage what fruits and vegetables they could, either by harvesting immediately or replanting. They then consumed things based on their longevity - eating first those items that would spoil first.

The public utilities company (along with cell and internet providers) are to be commended for how quickly they were able to be back online. While we were without mains power at our house for almost five weeks, we had water service (much more important) back within 24 hours of the storm. Early access to clean water throughout Port Vila town made a world of difference. For the first month, we made almost daily water runs to Etas and Epau Villages, filling up 25 liter water containers in town and delivering them to our local contacts, who in turn shared them generously with their neighbors. For a longer term solution, we were able to supply several large water tanks in strategic areas, along with simple water filtration systems, that will provide water to many hundred people in the months and years to come.

Aid Distribution 101 ... How we did it (Part 1)

I’m more and more convinced that you need a Master’s Degree (if not a PhD!) to know what you're doing on this relief work and aid distribution thing. It’s been a tremendous experience and I certainly wouldn’t trade being here during this time, but I think I’ve learned that it’s impossible to “do it right.” Where to draw the line, what requests to grant/deny, how to distribute a limited number of big ticket items … you are bound to upset someone in the process!

Nonetheless, I think we can honestly say that we’ve done our best, seeking advice and praying for wisdom every step of the way. Being extremely well-funded by generous donors has made a world of difference, so much so that we’ve never had to say “no” due to a lack of funds. God’s provision is rich indeed.

In this series I’d like to present an overview of how we’ve approached the relief effort. This is my “first rodeo” and I had a lot to learn (still do). While I hope I never have to deal with this type of tragedy again, I think we will certainly be better equipped to do so next time, should the need arise.

Stay tuned…