WONDER LAKE – Traci Klapperich of Wonder Lake knows that “amazing” is a strange word to describe disaster relief.
But when the 22-year-old McHenry East High School grad found herself in Washington, helping the victims of the tornadoes that devastated the small town of 15,000 people in central Illinois, that was the only word she could come up with to explain the experience.
“Even just to have a conversation with a homeowner is life changing,” Klapperich said. “They’re so happy just to be standing there, and they’re not even concerned about everything that they lost, which is the first thing that you think of when you think what if there’s a fire or tornado.”
The experience has her rethinking what she wants to do with her life and looking at careers in disaster relief.
After Klapperich was laid off in November, she decided to go back to school, but as she was waiting for her program in broadcast journalism to start – she leaves for Arizona this week – she found herself through a friend-of-a-friend volunteering her time.
A group of seven people, most of them from Chicago, headed down, the first time for two days and the second time for three. They connected with Bethany Community Church and ended up staying with one of its parishioners.
The work was a strange blend of desensitizing, repetitive sorting – into different piles of vegetation, hazardous waste, household appliances and construction material that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would later pick up – and touching moments where they’d come across the rare memento such as napkins from someone’s wedding – rare because most of the debris already had been picked through.
There were fun times like taking a sledgehammer to a house set to be demolished.
And there were times when she’d stand in the remains of someone’s living room, looking one way to see everything that was in the tornado’s path destroyed and then turning around to see everything looked perfectly normal.
“You see the pictures online, and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s terrible,’ ” Klapperich said. “But you’re in that neighborhood and you drive down the street and you realize it’s more than just that picture, it’s the whole neighborhood.”
Klapperich is one of a growing number of people drawn to volunteering through social media, and while spontaneous volunteers – the industry term for volunteers not affiliated with any church or organization who just show up following disasters – can potentially be a problem, more nonprofits are looking to harness both aspects of volunteering.
Rebecca Stiemke, the executive director of Volunteer Center McHenry County, has just been charged with putting together a plan for how to handle spontaneous volunteers in case a disaster happens in McHenry County.
In some cases, spontaneous volunteers have shown up while emergency responders still are on the scene, she said. This spring, when flooding damaged homes and businesses and the waters of the Fox River continued to climb, so many volunteers showed up at township offices that organizers didn’t know what to do with all of them.
“You want those people to help,” Stiemke said. “You don’t want them to get in the way or make things worse.”
Volunteers make up 94 percent of the people that the Red Cross uses to carry out its work, which includes responding to disasters, according to the nonprofit’s website.
Stiemke also recently hired a marketing and content manager to handle the Volunteer Center’s social media outreach, something they had only being doing on an ad-hoc basis before.
“With the younger generation coming up, that’s where we want to be,” she said. “That’s a very helping generation, so we want to make sure we’re connecting with them.”
Those 20- to 24-year-olds have the lowest volunteer rates at 18.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most likely to volunteer were 35- to 44-year-olds at 31.6 percent.
Stiemke added that she’s seen a jump in families volunteering together, in particular parents who grew up volunteering and want to make sure their kids get an early start.
About 64.5 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2012 number.