For Pam Garrison, Disaster Response is more than a job, it's a ministryDisaster Recovery
When disaster struck anywhere in the Florida Conference, Pam Garrison's mission was to help provide aid, comfort, and empower survivors to lift themselves out of the rubble.
As the Conference Disaster Response Coordinator and director of the Conference's Disaster Recovery Ministry, she helped coordinate efforts with multiple relief agencies. She ensured people had opportunities for assistance through the complex world of insurance, reconstruction, and preparation for the next time catastrophe loomed.
But it's that last part of her title – Ministry – that reminded her this work was more than just brick and mortar. As she prepares for retirement after 16 years with the Conference, she was reminded that the real mission was to offer the love and hope of Jesus when people needed it most.
"A couple evacuated the area when they knew Hurricane Irma was coming. When they got back, a large tree had fallen into their house," she said. "They called around but couldn't find anyone to help."
While that was going on, the husband developed cancer. Desperate for help, they listened when someone suggested they call the United Methodist Church. That helped get home repairs started, but there is more to the story.
"His cancer was progressing. He hadn't been to church for 50 years. I don't know what happened, but he just wasn't interested. One of the relief teams included a youth choir and they were singing at a local church. His wife went to hear them and told her husband about how wonderful they were.
"So, he went with her the next time and was just moved by what he heard. When team got ready to leave for home, they asked if they could pray with him. He said yes.
Then he added something else.
He told them, "I want to receive Jesus."
The man died one day after moving back into his repaired home. But the bigger story is that he is spending eternity in a home that will never need repairs.
Stories like that make it hard to walk away, but Garrison knows the ministry is in good hands under new Coordinator Trish Warren.
"Pam is the reason we have had so many partners in this recovery. Each and every partner we have had, has shared with us just how much of an impact Pam has had on their lives and their ministry. Between our friends at UMCOR, to our friends across the US in other organizations and conferences, Pam has impacted each one of them in a special way," Warren said.
"As she prepared for retirement, I have witnessed many Zoom meetings where the majority of the people on the call had tears streaming down their cheeks as they have shared the impact Pam has had on them. I know that when I face challenges in this ministry, and there will be challenges, I will hear Pam’s voice reminding me to remain calm, serve others in a way that won’t cause harm, and always remember that God’s got this."
Garrison and Warren have an extensive history of working together. Warren started her association with the Conference as a case manager after Irma and was later elevated to Team Leader.
"I celebrate Pam as she begins her well deserved retirement. I often remind myself that God places people in your life for specific reasons, and often those are unknown at the time. When I met Pam I had no clue where that encounter would lead us three years later. My first day was just four months after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida," Warren said.
"I recall sitting in my training class and listening to Pam and she shared some of her experience in this ministry. Her passion for this ministry was evident in just the first few minutes of hearing her speak. During those few days of training, I never imagined how much of an impact Pam would have on my life. Not only has she been my supervisor, but she has also been my mentor and I am so blessed to now call her my friend."
And while Garrison said she will enjoy not being tied to her computer or phone she has no specific plans other than to follow where God leads.
Garrison joined the Conference in January 2005, a few short months after Hurricane Charley caused an estimated $16 billion in damages to Florida. It was the first of seven hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004 and 2005, leading to the formal creation of the Disaster Recovery arm of the Conference.
The Book of Discipline requires all conferences to have a Disaster Response Coordinator. Until 2004, that position was a volunteer and there was little central organization. Marilyn Swanson was the first paid Conference Disaster Response Coordinator.
"After Charley hit, they asked Marilyn if she could help out for a few months. Without her, this ministry wouldn't exist," Garrison said.
The Conference set up a temporary storm recovery center. It quickly turned from a one-time event into a permanent and vital ministry. Swanson and Garrison worked well together until Garrison took over leadership in 2012 when Marilyn retired.
"Pam was instrumental in strengthening our communications with Disaster Response Coordinators and District offices as well as organizing our Early Response Teams." Swanson said.
"This assisted in the response and moved the ministry into recovery. During this time, she was also responsible for setting up the spiritual and emotional care for local churches and we traveled together to visit churches and listen to the concerns."
Garrison's expertise proved critical as Florida endured an almost yearly battering from major hurricanes and other violent acts of nature. That included the Groundhog Day tornadoes in 2007 that killed 21 people, the Palm Bay fires and Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, Tropical Storm Debbie in 2012, the damaging Pasco County floods in 2015 and Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew in 2016.
None of those brought the devastation that Irma did in September 2017.
"Our goal is not to just give them resources and send them on their way. Our goal is to empower them, so they'll be prepared for the next time."
The storm caused $50 billion in damage and killed 84 people. The aftermath was a challenge not only from the wrecked homes and lives, but also for how widespread the carnage was.
"It basically impacted the entire Conference. It was definitely the biggest challenge," Garrison said.
The first challenge is restoring communications, and then to be ready to assist when emergency personnel have completed their search and rescue. That involves reaching out to local churches about what they're seeing and how best to help. Trained volunteers are then directed to the places of greatest need.
"Sometimes those in the impacted area are still in shock. It's hard for them to think through about what they need. If there is a trained person who can take them through the process, it helps them to focus on what they need to do,"
Garrison said. "A disaster is always locally owned. Always, always, always. We don't come in top down and say this is what you need to do.
"Our goal is not to just give them resources and send them on their way. Our goal is to empower them, so they'll be prepared for the next time. Because it's ministry, they recognize our love, and it opens the door to share with them.”
Showing that love is a major part of why Garrison and so many others working either full-time or as volunteers in disaster relief do what they do.
"One story that will always stick with me was about this family on Marco Island. A huge tree fell on their house and they couldn’t get in for over a week to assess the damage," Garrison said. "A team came down from Murfreesboro, Tennessee with heavy equipment to help.
"Now, why would they do that? They didn't have to do that. They came here at their own expense. They slept on the church floor. They showered at the YMCA. But they did it to help people in need."
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for flumc.org.
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