Pictured: Seth Gardner (right) circa 2005/2006 volunteering for Hurricane Katrina.
I began my involvement with NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster accidentally, when I was 16 years old. My adopted father, Steve Lear, is one of the founders of the organization and when I was 16 he sent me, completely against my will, to St Peter, MN to help after the F3 tornado that came through town. I spent a couple days helping to remove debris, walking through farm fields picking up pieces of houses, pieces of homes, pieces of lives.
In truth, I hated almost every minute of it! It was hot, sweaty work trudging through muddy fields with strangers. At one point on the last day, I lost my boot to a thick pile of muck. At 16, I was completely unaccustomed to physical labor and, I’m sorry to say, really didn’t give that much thought to the importance of the work I was doing. I left my time in St Peter basically unchanged.
Except I didn’t. Something in the work we did to help that community stuck with me, even though I couldn’t identify it at the time. All through my time at the University of Minnesota when NECHAMA called, I did my best to answer and went on weekend trips around Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa responding to the floods, tornados, and windstorms that occurred. I spend the summer of 2001 working for the organization part-time, helping to respond to the F3 tornado the destroyed much of Siren, WI. During that response, NECHAMA gave me my first ever opportunity to lead, supervising teams of local volunteers as we cut trees from around houses and cleared debris. We worked with volunteers from the Twin Cities, from the local community, even from nearby Herzl Camp – the Jewish summer camp that most of my younger siblings attended.
I graduated from college in the winter of 2003/2004 and like many people of my generation, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I spent a year working for Starbucks in Minneapolis, then moved out to Boston with some friends and worked at a bookstore, all trying to figure out what I could and should do next. After settling on applying to law school, I moved home to Minneapolis to prepare and started looking for work while I did. It just so happened that NECHAMA needed some help. They had a “Deployment Manager” who led the disaster teams, but they needed someone to do everything else – the paperwork, the volunteer management, the connection with disaster partners. It seemed perfect for a summer, to do work I liked with people I liked while preparing to apply to law school for the following year.
I started in March of 2005, with a vague title of “Administrative Assistant,” working out of a small room in the Board President’s set of offices for his business. About two or three weeks in, he called me into his office and told me we needed to do something about my title. He said that if I introduced myself as “Administrative Assistant” everyone would want to talk to him instead, so I became the “Administrator.” I grew slowly into that role, learning from the Board Members who helped to run the day-to-day of what was then a $100k-per-year organization with 1.5 staff. My first disaster in that role was flooding in Estherville, IA. We took a small team of volunteers from Minneapolis and spend a week gutting basements flooded by the creek than ran through the center of town. I remember calling the local Public Health department on one of our clients – she had made her living selling Tupperware and had wanted to keep and sell her inventory, which had sat in a mix of flood water and sewage for a week. While I’ve long since forgotten her name I have a clear image of her in my head, desperately searching through the debris for something salvageable. I think that Estherville is where I first really connected with the meaning of the work, that the stuff ruined by the flood isn’t just stuff – it represents people lives and livelihoods.
I worked through the summer of 2005, all the while believing that my time with NECHAMA as paid staff would be very temporary. And then in the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi and Louisiana. A couple days after the storm, one of our regular volunteers called and asked if we were going to respond. My answer was a resounding “of course not!” At that time, NECHAMA responded to Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the eastern Dakotas. We’d never been so far away as Illinois, let alone the deep South. We had no idea how to work at that scale, at that distance, in that environment. However, of the course of that first week after Katrina, I and all of our Board Members changed our minds. We had an emergency board meeting about 6 days after Katrina made landfall and it was obvious in that conversation that we would need to figure it out.
And we did figure it out. We spent a month in Hattiesburg, MS cutting trees off houses in a community an hour north of the coast where every single road in the county was blocked by fallen trees in the aftermath of the storm. We migrated down to the Mississippi gulf coast, working in Waveland and Bay St. Louis, which were hit by a nearly 30-foot storm surge. After a couple of months, with volunteers flying in and out for a week at a time, we headed home. We came back again over the Christmas break and again over the spring break in 2006, working up and down the coast of Mississippi. We then moved over to New Orleans, where we spend the summer of 2006, that winter, and then the following winter.
Two years passed fairly quickly, responding to Katrina and other local disasters, and I never again thought of leaving. I became a disaster response professional and NECHAMA absolutely launched my career. In a small organization, I had the opportunity to learn and grow quickly. After five years as paid staff, I left NECHAMA to join the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); after three years with FEMA, I took a position with the American Red Cross where I have worked in disaster response and recovery ever since.
Despite moving on to other organizations, I stayed in touch with NECHAMA and in 2014 I was asked to get back involved and join the Board of Directors. The leadership of the organization had changed significantly since I had left and the Board had started to become more of a normal Board – providing governance, guidance, and starting to work on fundraising – rather than the operational group it had been when I worked for them. They wanted to add someone who understood the disaster response side of the business and I was thrilled to be part of this organization again.
In a lot of ways, I’m a strange choice for board membership and leadership. I don’t bring connections to money or influence. I don’t have great personal wealth and I don’t have any previous experience with nonprofit boards. But what I do have is a tremendous amount of passion about the work NECHAMA does as a disaster relief organization, the way we go about that work, and our specific role as the Jewish community’s disaster relief organization.
I hope the value of the work is straightforward to people, but it always bears talking about. NECHAMA’s volunteers go into people’s homes and lives on some of their very worst days and provide exactly what it says on the box – comfort (the word nechama means comfort in Hebrew). We help them with the physical work that is so difficult to do after a disaster: the hard labor of gutting a house down to the studs or dealing with the downed trees all around the house. A lot of our clients aren’t up to that hard labor – we always try to start with the most vulnerable. But some of the ones I remember best are those who worked right alongside us; they had the ability to do the work, but they just couldn’t get started. Sometimes they didn’t know how, sometimes starting the clean-up would just mean that it was all real. But once we got going, they could see what would happen next. I truly think that’s been the most important service we’ve provided – helping people see that help is there to be had and that there is a potential light at the end of the tunnel. I remember a man in Waverly, IA after the 2008 floods; when we first looked at his home he told us he didn’t need any help because the home couldn’t be saved. We convinced him to let us at least help him go through some of it. After working on the home for two days, all the debris was out and the house was gutted down to the studs, ready for rebuilding. His thank you to us wasn’t about the physical work – he honestly could have done it himself; rather, it was about the hope and comfort our volunteers provided. When we were done, he was ready to face the long recovery ahead.
It’s this focus on comfort and the interaction with the client that makes NECHAMA special. Over the 20 plus years I’ve been involved with the organization we’ve changed staff, we’ve changed geographic areas, and we’ve occasionally changed the specifics of the work – the type of projects we did in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria or in New York after Superstorm Sandy are things I couldn’t have imagined when I worked for the organization. But through all of that, our focus hasn’t changed from the client and making sure we help them take the first steps on their road to recovery.
One of the most important parts of how we’ve looked at our work is how we’ve selected our clients. Like the vast majority of disaster response organizations, we focus on those who need the most help: the elderly, disabled, single-parent families, etc. But we’ve also taken a lot of pride over the years in responding to communities that aren’t getting the same amount of help as others. We can only be so many places at once and we’ve often chosen communities that aren’t the ones on the front page. During Katrina, we started in Mississippi, not New Orleans; during Hurricane Ike, we went to the Golden Triangle, not Galveston; during the 2008 Iowa Floods, we went to Mason City and Waverly, not Cedar Rapids. While this has often made it difficult to raise money, I firmly believe that we’ve been able to help people who would simply not have had help available to them otherwise. So often organizations chase the big-name community that’s been on the news, but NECHAMA has instead often been the only outside organization working in a community. The people in those communities need help just as much as anyone else.
One of the places I have personally gotten the most value out of my time with NECHAMA is in relation to the Jewish community. The disaster relief field is primarily faith-based; the Red Cross is probably the only disaster organization you’ve heard of that is secular in nature. Almost everywhere I’ve ever been with NECHAMA, we’ve worked with Christian organizations of all stripes from Catholic Charities to the Mennonites to the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. We’ve also worked extensively with the Islamic Circle of North American Disaster Relief. On one response in northern Minnesota, we worked with an Amish group from Canada on a home owned by a Somali Muslim immigrant. During the 2010 Nashville floods, we worked hand in hand with ICNA and both organizations stayed at a Methodist church. Disaster response is a great interfaith endeavor and those organizations have loved seeing the Jewish community represented. Basically every faith group has put forward a team, and those teams see NECHAMA as the Jewish response to disasters.
This is particularly important to me, as the organized Jewish community has more of a cursory relationship with disaster response and recovery; Jewish communities’ around the country have been part of significant disaster efforts but there hasn’t been an organized community response outside of NECHAMA. As both a Jew and a disaster response professional, I’m proud to see our community step up to the table through NECHAMA and be a part of this interfaith endeavor.
Maybe the most significant place that NECHAMA has impacted my life is in my own personal relationship to Judaism and being Jewish. I grew up with a Jewish mother and Christian father, neither of whom were particularly religious. We grew up doing Passover and Easter with friends who were actually religious, and we’d do Christmas and Chanukah in our house (of which I have very fond memories). I didn’t grow up in the Jewish community, I don’t go to synagogue, my social life does not generally involve other Jews; nevertheless, I’m proud to be a part of the Jewish community and NECHAMA is what has forged that connection. Throughout my time with NECHAMA, I’ve found it to be a place for Jews who don’t always connect with the other organs of the community. It’s been a place for the weird ones, who don’t go to synagogue or to Federation events but who feel a connection to being Jewish and want to have a way to express it. The values the organization are based on are foundational to the Jewish community and those values are ones that many of us connect with.
Those values are not only animating to the Jewish community and one of the best things about NECHAMA has been the welcoming spirit in which it has engaged people from all faiths or none to offer their time and money to help people in need. Beliefs and values are only important insofar as they inform our actions and NECHAMA has been an important channel for those actions for me personally and for so many incredible people I’ve met in over 20 years volunteering, working, and serving with this organization.