The Boy and the Starfish

by Tiara Johnson I thought that I would start off this month’s great story with an old proverb...

~~ A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean.

As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water.

The man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied,"I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen. "But", said the man, "You can't possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can't possibly make a difference." The boy looked down, frowning for a moment; then bent down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea. He replied, "I made a huge difference to that one!" ~~

The proverb tells the inspirational story of a boy wise beyond his years. For a long time I kept this lesson dear to my heart and found it applicable in many difficult situations I experienced… However, I found that this wise proverb fails to acknowledge the difficulty identifying those who need help the most.

During our time in South Carolina I experienced it first hand - the homeowners who are loud and know how to "work the system" get help, while those uneducated, quiet and often too proudly independent fall through the cracks. The disparity is exasperated by the underlying poverty-related issues prevalent across the hardest hit areas. It often seems that the system disproportionately fails to meet the needs of the impoverished — a truth that is both overwhelming and frustrating for me to accept.

Then again, after a few deep breathes, I accept that we cannot change the greater system in place and larger systemic issues arising from things out of our control. Rather than worrying about the disparity, we can use that energy for EMPOWERMENT and CAPACITY BUILDING. This is where our role as Voluntary Agency Liaison Support and Fast Track (Crisis Cleanup) Task Force plays a significant role in making an impact on the ground here in South Carolina.

AmeriCorps St. Louis's main Mission Assignment goal was to assist FEMA and the SCVOAD promote Crisis Cleanup as a standard for all agencies/partners involved in the repair, rebuild, and recovery. The pre-existing Crisis Cleanup online platform offers an open source, user-friendly platform for voluntary agencies to identify home repair/rebuild needs and avoid duplication of efforts. While this tool has been utilized in past disaster efforts, its implementation in SC differs in that (a) it is normally used only during the response phase for muck outs and debris removal and (b) not all agencies actively use it creating disconnected databases of information.

Over the past two months ACSTL along with CCMI developed and implemented a scalable model and best practices guide for the implementation of Crisis Cleanup in Long Term Recovery. This model, internally dubbed “Fast Track," actively promotes cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration. When coupled with with proper resources (particularly funding and/or donations in kind) and open lines of communication between FEMA, Voluntary Agencies and Homeowners, Fast Track can have a profound effect on bridging the disaster response and long term recovery phases.

It model sounds idealistic… and it fact it was. Many obstacles came our way from all angles. Instead of accepting defeat, our team adapted. And with each lesson and various partner feedback, we continually adapted the model to it’s current form. The reality is that it may not capture every single need, however it is a start. I am proud to say that the SC Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (SCVOAD) ratified the model and many organizations plan to utilize the database. Furthermore, VOADs in other disasters are looking to utilize the system in their response and recovery efforts.

So as I enter a new case into Crisis Cleanup or attend a meeting with a local long term recovery group, I remember the little boy on the beach…