First reports of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami were still coming in from Japan when Blanco Countians began planning how they could help the survivors.
One of the first steps was at the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City, where a work-day was scheduled for Saturday, March 19, to assemble personal hygiene kits.
"In a situation like that, sanitation will be a major concern, because of diseases that can accompany disrupted water and sewer systems," said JoAnn Routh, chair of the church’s Missions Committee. "It’s especially important to keep people healthy because medical help already is overwhelmed, so a simple illness like dysentery can be fatal."
The hygiene kit assembly line already had been scheduled when the earthquake hit; it was to prepare kits to send to the Haitian survivors of the earthquake there last year. The church sent hundreds of kits to Haiti then, but learned this month that more are needed because of those continuing diseases among survivors.
"On Friday morning, our focus changed in an instant," Routh said. "We’ll get back to Haiti; this is an emergency."
There has not been a call for the health kits yet, she explained, but this puts us ahead of events, ready to deliver as soon as the delivery channel opens.
Another step was the church’s call for cash donations, which can move faster than anything else to deliver aid immediately.
"We’re blessed to have the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), a leading source of fast relief in disasters world-wide," explained Treasurer Gus Sanchez, "not only because of the international expertise it brings to the problem, but because it is the most efficient channel for financial aid."
UMCOR’s expenses are paid by the church, Sanchez pointed out, so every penny given for Japan relief goes to Japan for relief... none is held back for administration.
"Add to that the United Methodist connectional system, and it makes a strong, direct channel for aid. A dollar dropped off at the church office here quickly lands in Japan to pay for disaster assistance while the disaster is still going on," he added.
That’s how it worked in 2005, when Blanco County donors used that pipeline to send more than $7,500 to help survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Organizers hope to top that this time.
By the end of the first day, the connectional system had turned the Blanco County relief campaign into an area-wide effort through the Central Texas churches of the UMC’s Kerrville District.
"This is nothing new for us," said the Reverend Bill Henderson, superintendent of the Kerrville District. "We did much the same thing for the border flooding last summer, and for the Haiti earthquake last winter, and the Indian Ocean tsunami before that. "
"We have our system down to a science so we can react quickly and effectively, even when the need takes us by surprise."
That system provides Blanco County with a means of letting Hill Country residents make an immediate difference for the disaster survivors on the far side of the world.
Even small individual donations of time, supplies or money combine with other contributions here in the county, then combine again with the muscle of the 50 churches in this district, so that when the help arrives in Japan through UMCOR in just a few days, it has real power behind it.
"It is truly amazing to think of the good that people here in the Hill Country can do a half a world away," said Pastor Norman Roe of the Johnson City church.
"When Jesus commanded us to ‘Feed my sheep,’ there was no exemption for sheep that were far away, or that didn’t look like us, or for what their grandfathers may have done in World War II.
"He said what you do for the least of these, you do for me," Roe said, "and the survivors of disaster are all ‘the least of these’. If we want to call ourselves Christians, we can do no other."
Not all of the survivors are all that far removed from here, except geographically.
Joy Feuge of Johnson City said her niece, Denise Leach, is a middle school principal for the US Department of Defense in Japan. Her building held up in the earthquake and wasn’t flooded by the wave, but a bus-load of her students was out on a field trip and out of communication.
"The school had scheduled a teachers’ dinner for that evening," Feuge recalled, "so that was quickly canceled...but they went ahead and cooked the spaghetti anyway because there was no telling how long they would have to keep the children in the school before parents could get them
"They were especially glad they had food ready when the bus finally got back, five hours after the earthquake, and the kids were ready to eat anything they could find!"
It would be seven hours after the quake that Leach would be able to get a call back to Texas, and even then, she reported, strong aftershocks were still continuing.
The hygiene kit assembly line starts work at 9 am Saturday, March 19, in the Activity Building at the church. Volunteers can just show up and pitch in.
Donations of cash or goods may be brought then, or can be sent or taken to the church office at 105 North LBJ.
For more information, call JoAnn at 868-7414.