Community recovery

Photos by Helen Wolf

By Jenn Dorsch‐Messler, director of Brethren Disaster Ministries

As we come to the end of Brethren Disaster Ministries’ Memorial Day 2019 tornado recovery project in the Dayton, Ohio, area it is wonderful to think of some of the highlights that have made it unlike most BDM rebuilding projects. These include the local district answering the call to serve wherever needed, a recovery community that continued to assist even during a pandemic, and a new program which was formed to serve a group of survivors not often helped after a disaster.

The Southern Ohio/Kentucky District stepped up in ways not usually seen on other BDM national projects where the closest Brethren church is typically hundreds of miles away. For months, beginning within days of the tornados, there were district volunteers helping to clear trees, tarp roofs, and canvas neighborhoods looking for those in need of help. District disaster coordinators Burt and Helen Wolf began coordinating with volunteers in the Dayton area even though they were away serving on the Coastal North Carolina rebuilding site when the tornados hit. Later they and other BDM representatives collaborated with others in the community in the formation of the Miami Valley Long-term Recovery Operations Group, which planned the next steps in the recovery of the whole community.

Following the initial work by district volunteers and leaders, a national BDM program rebuilding site was scheduled to open in April 2020. Everything about life and plans changed around that time, however, altering the timeline and halting all rebuilding work.

The global pandemic brought a lot of challenges and unknown factors, including travel recommendations that restricted travel for volunteers from outside the Dayton area. By July 2020, however, local volunteers from BDM and other organizations were able to join together to begin serving survivors. The long-term BDM disaster project leadership, typically provided by those who travel to serve on a site, was led by Christi “Sammy” Deacon, Phil Deacon, and Rex Miller, who served for many months within an hour of their homes.

The reduction in volunteerism and funding for most volunteer groups made it clear that if organizations did not work together in the safest way possible, families would be left out of their homes for even longer. And so, after a necessary delay to develop COVID-19 protocols and put them in place, non-profits in the area began new partnerships to work for homeowners with new ways to physically be in each other’s presence.

By August 2020, the project volunteer housing was opened and BDM volunteers from other states who agreed to observe the strict COVID-19 protocol began serving in Dayton. The project remained open through November 2020 and then again from April-October 2021. During this time, the number of volunteers able or willing to serve across all organizations was lower than usual, which made the local community even more thankful for those who came to serve.

The last rebuild that BDM worked on belonged to Ms. Lillie, who had part of the roof blown off two rooms in her home by the tornado. BDM’s volunteers helped her by saving thousands of dollars in contractor fees. Few days went by without Ms. Lillie coming by to say thank you or her neighbors in the tightknit community stopping to share their appreciation. A neighbor even purchased lunch for all the volunteers one day as a thank you for helping Ms. Lillie finally get back into her home after over two and a half years.

A focus other than repairing storm-damaged houses developed when a new set of public and private partners created the Tornado Survivor Pathways to Homeownership program (referred to as Pathways). This program supports renters, who had lost their housing due to the tornados, to return to their home neighborhoods and to purchase new or rehabilitated properties. Thanks to technology, the planning for this program took place virtually. The groundbreaking on the first home was on March 29, 2021. BDM volunteers have served on five of these Pathways houses. The first former renter/new homeowner moved in at the end of the BDM project.

Although scheduled to end in September 2021, the Dayton site was extended and the last group of national BDM volunteers left on Oct. 30. Incredibly, and in God’s timing, as local district volunteers closed out the remaining work in Dayton, another group of Southern Ohio/Kentucky District volunteers arrived in North Carolina on Oct. 31 as the first group to return to the Coastal NC project.

Thank you to all who volunteered, donated, and prayed for community recovery in Dayton!

This reflection was originally featured in Bridges,the newsletter of Brethren Disaster Ministries. Learn more about the work of Brethren Disaster Ministries at or support its work today at

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

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