Davidson Co. residents affected by the Dec. 2021 tornadoes

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Nashville volunteer group is prepared to support city through any disaster

Written by: Lori Shinton, President and CEO of Hands on Nashville, a VOAD member organization

The March 2020 tornadoes highlighted the need for a more effective and unified disaster response plan

When tornadoes ripped through Tennessee in the middle of the night on March 3, 2020, the devastated Nashville community scrambled to respond. 

Helpers came out in droves with chainsaws, supplies, food, and donations. Hands On Nashville alone saw 30,000 volunteers in the week after the tornado. 

The city relies on me, as the CEO of Hands On Nashville, and my team to lead volunteer efforts after a disaster. It’s what we do. 

That early March morning, we immediately snapped into action to lead these efforts. It was a challenging, heartfelt, and sometimes chaotic effort. 

The chaos was mostly due to the lack of prior coordination with other disaster organizations and key neighborhood leaders. I am proud to say that we have accomplished so much since then. 

Within a few weeks of the tornado, the Davidson County Long-Term Recovery Group had formed to coordinate continued services to survivors. It was here that we really began to assess the landscape: Which organizations were providing which services? How could we streamline and not duplicate efforts? 

The success of this team approach led me, working alongside my nonprofit peers at the American Red Cross, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, Community Resource Center, Neighbor 2 Neighbor, Salvation Army and United Way of Greater Nashville, to establish a steering committee to reinstate the Nashville VOAD, the acronym for Nashville Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. 

The Nashville VOAD is reinstated and reimagined to help connect local organizations during times of crisis

The Nashville VOAD is structured around a coalition of dozens of area nonprofits, community organizations, faith-based institutions and government departments. We work together to ensure effective response to disasters through cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration. 

The purpose of the group is to strengthen area-wide disaster coordination and preparedness by sharing programs, policies and information, while engaging in joint planning, education, and training. 

As we began to work collectively, we were able to share information, fill gaps of service, and communicate in real time with all the groups responding. 

Looking back, it seems obvious: creating a purposeful and responsive mechanism that scales up during crisis is vital to a resilient city. But since there had not been a disaster of this magnitude in Nashville since 2010, coming together to prepare a coordinated response was not on our collective radar. 

A sad truth: It is difficult to convince people to dedicate resources to disaster preparation when there is not a disaster at hand. 

Nashville’s ability to handle the next disaster depended on the formation of the coalition, and the Nashville VOAD’s first opportunity to respond to a real event was the 2020 Christmas morning bombing. Immediately following the event, Metro Nashville’s Office of Emergency Management called on the VOAD to pull the nonprofit sector together to respond to the bombing. 

We had our first call the day after the bombing, on Dec. 26. We invited any organization with the knowledge and resources to help to participate in the response, which was complicated due to the unique nature of the event being a crime and man-made disaster. 

In the response and recovery efforts, nonprofits in VOAD coordinated and filled needs such as case management, counseling and communications. Being a coordinated group, the response was much clearer, allowing each agency to know how they could help and what they could do.

Having a unified response organization promotes effective communication and deployment of resources

One of the keys to such collaboration has been greatly increased communication. 

The VOAD team has worked tirelessly on setting up key activation protocols. For instance, when we have active weather patterns, we communicate to the group to be aware and to be ready to stand by, if necessary. 

The VOAD members, working in conjunction with Metro’s Office of Emergency Management and the Mayor’s Office, blast out this information to the public via social media, emails, and dispatches to the media so the public can be ready, too. 

Regular meetings are held to provide training on the processes that have been developed and the systems that are used for VOAD to respond.   

This played out in the March 2021 flooding, which occurred mainly in Southeast Nashville. We immediately put a form on the Nashville VOAD website for survivors. We were able to distribute flood buckets, canvas affected neighborhoods, and began collecting survivor information within a couple of days. 

None of this would have been possible without the year of planning prior to the flood. 

Nashville VOAD helps lead a collaborative community response

Each disaster event has its own challenges. The Nashville VOAD has to be flexible on what the needs are and how to respond. There is a core group of 41 nonprofits in the VOAD, and we welcome inquiries from other community organizations that are interested in being a part of the coalition. 

We recognize that bringing in key neighborhood leaders, including those at religious institutions and neighborhood nonprofits, is critical to the success of disaster recovery. 

The bottom line: Collaboration enables us all to serve our city when its residents need us most. We can scale up efficiently and have increased our capacity to respond — I estimate by at least tenfold — just by having a system set up to deploy services.   

Hands On Nashville benefits greatly from being a part of the Nashville VOAD. We are a customer-driven organization that helps nonprofits build capacity by sending volunteers to them. We develop deep relationships with new or new-to-us nonprofits in order to allow us to execute our mission better, and this commitment enables us to understand more acutely what our partners need. 

We have become a broader, more inclusive organization because of our work in disasters. People have gotten to know us and to trust what we are able to do, beyond our core audience. 

Like the other members of the team, I care about our city and the people who live here. We stand ready to provide services and to support our friends and neighbors when the next crisis hits — whether it is severe weather or, perish the thought, something like a shooting or bombing. 

Nashville VOAD is a mission-driven coalition, and we stand ready to support Nashville through whatever may come.

Lori Shinton headshot

Lori Shinton

Lori Shinton is President and CEO of Hands On Nashville and the Chair of Nashville VOAD. For a full list of Nashville VOAD member organizations, visit Nashville VOAD’s member page.


About Nashville VOAD

Nashville VOAD is a coalition of dozens of nonprofits, community organizations, faith-based institutions, and government departments working to ensure effective response to disasters through cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration. Nashville VOAD’s goal is to provide knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery—to help disaster survivors in Davidson County communities. During times of active disaster, the Nashville VOAD provides a single point of coordination for all member organizations seeking to assist survivors in our community so that needs are met in the most efficient manner possible.

Nashville VOAD Media Contact

Kelly Walberg & Misty Ratcliff
Nashville VOAD Communications
[email protected]

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