While Puerto Rico was the most famous victim of Hurricane Maria’s terrible devastation in September 2017, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, also suffered tremendous damage. Maria flattened thousands of Crucian homes, tore huge trees from their roots, and knocked out power for weeks.
For elderly and disabled residents, the situation was particularly grave. Many were living in shelters because their homes weren’t habitable.
“It was terrible!” said Joyce Floretta George. The hurricane tore half the roof off of the 70-year-old’s home, and mountains of debris blocked her yard. “We had trees all over the back, trees all over the front. There was a big flamboyant tree and that fell, too.”
Since cleanup crews were working on emergency rescues, George was surprised when five young men, who introduced themselves as Neighbor to Neighbor, volunteered to clear her yard at no charge.
“I appreciate Neighbor to Neighbor so much,” said George. “They cut the branches, they cut the trees up.” The crew made four trips to the dump site to get rid of debris from her property. “They helped me tremendously,” she said.
Launched with a $20,000 grant from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s newly created Disaster Relief Fund, Neighbor to Neighbor, or N2N, is the brainchild of the Rev. Qiyamah A. Rahman, who was the minister of the UU Fellowship of St. Croix for six years before retiring this past summer. Rahman wanted to focus her efforts on helping those who were most vulnerable but whom no other agency was targeting: the island’s elderly and disabled. Looking for financial assistance, Rahman contacted the UUA and learned of the new fund, applied online for a $20,000 grant, and within days, had the money in hand to begin helping her St. Croix neighbors.
“Word got out about what we were doing because no one else was targeting the elderly and disabled,” said Rahman. When other organizations heard about N2N’s work, and that the UUA had provided it seed money, Rahman got more donations, a total of nearly $100,000, including a $25,000 grant from AARP. N2N’s relief work “put our UU values into practice,” she said.
The Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund was created in August 2017 as a joint fund with the UU Service Committee to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. To date, the Harvey fund has raised over $500,000 from more than 2,000 individual donors and more than seventy-five UU congregations. Half of those funds have gone to UU congregations and members affected by Harvey, and half to at-risk populations served by UUSC partners.
But shortly after Harvey struck, a series of other natural disasters—including Hurricanes Irma and Maria and devastating fires in the western United States—led to broader need across the country. It was clear that a more general fund was required, and the UUA set up the Disaster Relief Fund. (The Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund remains a separate entity jointly administered by the UUA and UUSC.)
Formed in September 2017, the UUA Disaster Relief Fund is designed to quickly disburse funds to UU congregations and other UU entities affected by natural and human-caused calamities. In the past fifteen months, it has given out $265,000 to thirty-five applicants, who used an online application process designed to quickly get money into the hands of those in need. In most cases, applications are reviewed within twenty-four hours by a team of UUA staff, and if accepted, money is disbursed within days. (Only a handful have been denied, primarily because they weren’t UU-affiliated organizations.)
To date, grants have been given out to UU congregations and organizations from New Hampshire to California suffering from a variety of disasters, including hurricanes, flooding, and fires, said the Rev. Dawn Cooley of the UUA’s Southern Region, who helped create both the Harvey fund and the Disaster Relief Fund, which she now administers.
“The process is so streamlined, and it’s great to be able to get money into people’s hands when they need it—immediately,” Cooley said. “It’s a way we live into our covenant with each other, to be able to support congregations and UU organizations in times of crisis and offer them a safety net they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.”
Donations to the fund come from donors, mostly online. So far, the fund has received donations from 4,000 individuals and over 450 UU congregations. Donations cannot be earmarked for specific disasters or congregations. Cooley said this “allows us to send funds where they are needed, which aren’t always the attention-getting disasters.” In addition, the UU College of Social Justice works with the Disaster Relief Fund to decide where to send UU volunteers, she said.
In December 2017, Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) applied for two grants totaling $7,500 to help black people and other people of color who were victims of Hurricane Harvey and other ecological disasters. The process was “straightforward” and BLUU received the money “very quickly,” said BLUU Executive Director Lena K. Gardner. “It all happened in a matter of days.” BLUU gave out fifteen direct aid grants to help people repair their homes and buy clothes, but with requests for help from another seventy-nine people, BLUU applied for and received a second grant of $79,000 to provide direct grants of $1,000 each to people in need. BLUU then successfully applied for another $15,000 to help hurricane victims in New Bern, North Carolina, where BLUU is working through local partner Colorfest, Inc.
After Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September 2017, the Rev. Margaret Beard, a community minister affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers, applied to the UUA Disaster Relief Fund for $4,845: $1,845 to remove debris from the church property and repair buildings and signs, and the rest to disburse as grants to UUs in need, including a family with a young child whose home was significantly damaged and no longer had air conditioning. The congregation received the money in days, Beard said. “This is an opportunity to let other UUs help you, hold you,” she said.
One man who received assistance from the congregation wrote: “Now, as a grown man who has depended on no one since the age of 15, I don’t cry much. However, this day I did. Receiving this assistance has made a huge difference. I was able to get my finances out of the red and back on track, pay the mortgage on time again, and breathe! Thank you so much for helping my family survive this crisis and helping me personally learn that sometimes growing is asking for help. Thank you UUCFM and UUA.”
In St. Croix, Rahman submitted a proposal online and within days had the $20,000 she requested. Since the homes of the congregation’s twenty-five members were mostly intact, UUFSC’s board agreed to use the UUA funds for the community. “When I talked to the congregation I talked about putting our values into practice. It means a recognition that we are all one family, and when disaster strikes we are compelled by our values to be involved and to give on various levels,” she said.
Rahman hired a work crew of five young men who were unemployed and began purchasing equipment. At times, Rahman, 69 at the time, actually ended up supervising the crew on site. “Here I am, a female minister, with this all-male work crew, and it was a learning experience for all of us,” she said. “I was up on roofs. I learned how to use a chainsaw, and I got a little intimidated by the weed whacker.”
N2N was soon on the referral list for fema and the Red Cross, since no other group was focusing on the elderly and disabled. “N2N has created a visible presence in the community and promoted good will for Unitarian Universalism that is disproportionate to our size. We are at the table with all the other faith traditions” involved in disaster relief, Rahman wrote in her report to the UUA. The program also created partnerships with other community groups to raise awareness about ongoing concerns of elderly residents on the island.
“This has been one of the highlights of my ministry, to do that work,” Rahman said.
N2N cleared more than seventy yards and cleaned four houses at no charge to those they helped. Besides serving a vulnerable population, N2N has provided employment to a marginalized population of young men, Rahman added, including one, a father of five, whose unit in a public housing project was destroyed and who was struggling to provide for his family. When Rahman retired last summer, the St. Croix Foundation took over N2N from her.
“One morning I was driving by a house and saw a gentleman sleeping on a cot in a driveway outside a house,” recalled Rahman. “I asked him if he wanted some help. He said no. I could tell he didn’t trust me. I came back the next day and told him I was going to bring my crew by and he could tell them what to do and they would do it!” The man finally allowed the crew to assist him. “Sometimes people simply could not believe that we were helping and not asking anything in return.”