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Forefront Austin, October, 2011

Oct. 2, 2011, noon · 0 comments

How New Media Networks Sustain Long-Term Relationships

Austin, Texas

by Alan Nagal of ABBA- Austin Bridge Builders Alliance

Certainly, no one wants a disaster to occur. But, if one does happen, it can become a catalyst to unite people in new and extraordinary ways. A catastrophic event can provide a spark to motivate people to go from working as individuals or individual groups to reaching out to their neighbors together in a way that has a greater impact.

Austin Bridge Builders Alliance (ABBA) is employing new media and communications technologies to direct that spark in sustainable and meaningful ways to improve Austin in a permanent and measurable manner.

When the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina sent hundreds of evacuees to Austin in 2005, the communications and response systems were not in place to afford ease of service to the evacuees. But as compassion ministries and pastor networks, including ABBA, came together ad hoc networks formed to serve their immediate needs and provide guidance for long-term recovery.

The experience and lessons of Hurricane Katrina validated the need for a better, more permanent system for communicating needs and accessing resources when time is of the essence. Because of the way the faith community responded to the disaster, the city recognized that congregational networks who were ready and willing to serve Austin may very well be a part of that solution.

This led to the creation of the Austin Disaster Relief Network (ADRN). ADRN provides a hub for emergency preparedness training during non emergencies so that during emergencies there are systems and resources ready to be mobilized as soon as possible. Today, this network of churches, using new and social media, is able to communicate and unite people for sustainable support in response to emergency situations at the touch of the 'send' button.

The recent wildfires demonstrate the power of new communications technologies to activate networks and forge united responses to communities in need. Minutes after the first wildfires erupted, the technology tools that were in place united the needs of Bastrop and Travis counties with the Christian community, mobilizing volunteers and resources needed to respond to the disaster. Today, as these communities begin the challenge of rebuilding lives, these tools will continue to drive ongoing efforts to serve our neighbors.

Virtual Connections to Real Disasters

When the wildfires erupted, ABBA was in immediate contact with ADRN Executive Director Daniel Geraci to understand what was needed—both on the ground and in regard to volunteers.

As a first responder, ADRN created and ran the shelters for the people fleeing as wildfires hit their neighborhoods. Daniel communicated regularly with ABBA, texting, emailing and calling about the kind of assistance needed in these shelters.

Each level of disaster response requires differing levels of expertise. As Daniel communicated the skill levels needed, we turned quickly to our networks, tweeting, posting or texting to the volunteers who could deliver the services needed at that time.

ABBA's different Facebook and Twitter communities allowed for the collection and gathering of information to appropriate groups. These social communities supported our ability to maintain lines of communication on an ongoing basis with pastors and churches to anticipate ways their church members could engage. With each email or text, pastors in the ABBA network could begin cultivating those resources within their churches. This support could be food and clothing drives, assistance in cleaning up affected areas, long-term housing support for those who had lost their homes or emotional and spiritual support through the recovery process.

In addition, ADRN operated its own call center out of Hill Country Bible Church Northwest. With a dozen phones and computers, the center was operational from the first day of the wildfires. Two separate phone lines were set up: one for those who wanted to help and one for those in need. The volunteers who manned this call center shared information through the use of a text messaging service.

As families indicated they wanted the faith community to help them begin to walk through the recovery process, ADRN would input their information in Charity Tracker. As churches volunteered to sponsor or adopt families, they would access the needs of the family from Charity Tracker. Because of the sharing of information through the secure web-based benevolence software and the willingness for churches and ministries to become a member of the local Charity Tracker network, the process for connecting people wanting help to those who were willing and able was streamlined. In essence, a family needing help could go from being by themselves to having a group of 12 people around them in less than 24 hours.

As evacuees returned to their neighborhoods, volunteers were already there, standing by to be with those who would be returning for the first time. Volunteers helped debrief people from the trauma, determined their immediate needs and provided the needed emotional and spiritual support as they faced the devastation to their neighborhoods and their friends.

ADRN volunteers will continue to log, track and report on resource needs and assistance provided through Charity Tracker. ABBA will use data gathered through Charity Tracker to measure and report on ways the faith community responded to the wildfire disaster. We will also use Charity Tracker data to quantify the impact of benevolence on disaster response—and how that impact can be extended to new needs in Austin.

From response to recovery

As the families of Bastrop and Travis counties begin the hard work of recovery, ABBA’s goal is to capture the momentum stirred by the wildfire response, directing that passion into long-term relationships on behalf of the numerous needs that exist in Austin when we are not in a state of emergency. We strive to empower churches and their congregants to step forward and take action on behalf of our city, so that they're not just going to church on Sundays, but they're working together, as Christians, seeking the peace and prosperity of the city as encouraged in Jeremiah.

Zetify.org is an important tool that will support those long-term relationships. Zetify is a web-based relationship-building resource that allows the public to see what's happening within the Christian community in Austin: events at churches, volunteer needs within ministries and nonprofits, social interactions and other opportunities to get out and get involved. It is a central hub to connect needs, identify resources and engage in volunteer activities.

The wildfires demonstrated the power of connected, flexible and responsive networks fueled by new media tools. We now have an even clearer picture in how to cultivate and marshal the power of these networks to improve our city.

Here's a link to the original article.

Categories: Press

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