Honing a response to crisis

Study: A Howard company will advise faith organization on how to react to terrorism and other extreme acts of violence.

May 17, 2002|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A Howard County nonprofit organization is poised to provide insight and advice on the events of Sept. 11 -- information that may affect how government and private organizations nationwide respond to acts of terrorism.

The Jessup-based Village Life Co. has been commissioned to conduct a research study on the response of faith-based relief organizations to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Based on the study results, Village Life will recommend changes that could improve the effectiveness of relief groups.

"There's no doubt in my mind that there will be changes made in the Federal Response Plan as a result of 9-11," said the Rev. James E. Skillington, founder and president of Village Life Co. "What kinds of things did they [faith-based groups] end up doing which ought to be ... written into the new Federal Response Plan?"

"It all comes down to what worked and what didn't," said Beth Shepherd, director of client services at Village Life.

"The 9-11 Study" was commissioned by Church World Services (CWS), a consortium of 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations, which provides emergency aid, development help and refugee assistance. Skillington expects that data collection for the study will be completed by early summer and a report issued by early fall.

The results and recommendations of the 9-11 study will be given to CWS for dissemination to its member organizations and to aid in its disaster relief work. Rick Augsburger, CWS emergency response director, said in news release that CWS "will share its findings and recommendations with federal, state and volunteer agencies."

The qualitative study is a "two-tiered process of telephone interviews and then some in-person, more in-depth study," Shepherd said.

Groups that provided relief at the three disaster sites in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania will be surveyed using a 20-question form developed by Village Life. New Jersey workers are included in the survey "because of the flood of people that were sent over to New Jersey for immediate care."

Skillington said the Federal Response Plan "talks about how disaster-response organizations are supposed to respond in the case of a disaster," and specifically mentions several faith-based organizations.

"One question that ... is going to be raised by this study is ... `What is disaster-response spiritual care and who should be providing it?'" Skillington said.

He said the study raises other questions, including: Can secular organizations provide spiritual care? Should a single organization coordinate spiritual care and faith-based humanitarian efforts? Is there is a need for a system to provide credentials for spiritual-care workers?

"It was so clear that with 9-11 there is so much of a large element of people's psychological, emotional and spiritual need," Shepherd said. She observed that "everybody is becoming more and more aware" of the contributions of faith-based organizations to meet such needs after incidents of extreme public violence.

Village Life has a proven track record in providing information about disaster relief. The organization was founded in 1996 by Skillington, former director of communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church and an ordained minister of that denomination.

The company's first project was the formation, in 1997, of Disaster News Network a Web magazine that provides up-to-the-minute, worldwide disaster information.

The group's modest office in Jessup is the brain center for a network of reporters and volunteers who provide breaking and continuing news coverage of natural and human-initiated disasters from around the world. The group does not use any news services.

"We are the only Web site ... that uses its own reporting for disaster response," Skillington said. He added that the Web site's network of partners in the disaster-response community can sometimes provide breaking news for it to report sooner than do other news outlets.

"Network is not just a designation. It's part of who we are," he said.

"Everybody is in a heads-down effort to try and learn everything we possibly can out of what happened 9-11," said Shepherd "... so that we do a better job next time."

Information about the 9-11 study can be found at: www.9-11study.org.

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