Redefining disaster recovery with United Way of Porter County

Redefining disaster recovery with United Way of Porter County

Earlier this year, when the health department shuttered a small, multi-unit housing complex in Valparaiso’s College Hill neighborhood due to a bug infestation, nine adults, seven children, and ten animals were left suddenly homeless.

Knowing these families would be left with nothing, United Way of Porter County worked with health officials to transition the tenants to a better housing.

“We're so fortunate that we have such a great community," said Kim Olesker, President and CEO of the United Way of Porter County. “The main reason we got the call was because people know they can trust us and that we can quickly pull network resources together to assist."

Olesker and her team were able to coordinate with the department’s timing to make sure there were services in place for the residents and their pets before the official notice to vacate was posted. That meant locating hotel rooms and negotiating emergency rates in the middle of the Porter County Fair, replacing belongings like clothes and toiletries that had to be abandoned, and enlisting local vets to treat four-legged family members.

“We were able to pull a lot of partners together quickly," Olesker said. "There is no other nonprofit around that could do that at the community level."

The United Way of Porter County has been a go-to source for community-level disaster relief for years. As administration support of the Regional Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD) chapter, the organization takes part in many local large-scale emergency preparedness efforts with national organizations like Red Cross and FEMA. It secures emergency grants to support disaster relief programs and offers a residential emergency assistance program.

"We've been in disaster work behind the scenes for a very long time, over the last couple of years, individualized, direct emergency response is becoming a need we’re addressing," said Anicia Kosky, Community Outreach Manager of the United Way of Porter County. “Coordination of crisis events like these has not been part of our programming, but we’re taking on the challenge."

Recent events like the bug infestation in College Hill, or the fire that destroyed an apartment complex on Silhavy Road, highlight a need for individual-level, long-term relief service coordination not covered under the purview of traditional disaster organizations.

“We've found another gap that needs to be filled, and we need to figure out a way to do that," Kosky said. "We have a holistic approach that we are trying to evolve and develop for the individual or family unit that we've been supporting indirectly through our community safety net serivces for a long time." 

The first step, according to Olesker, is changing the understanding of what makes for a disaster or an emergency.

"We have pivoted and expanded our response scope beyond just fire, flood, or catastrophic weather,” she said. “If a house is deemed uninhabitable, or if you're a homeowner and the creek rises and your basement floods, your definition of ‘disaster’ becomes very different."

Because many of those most heavily impacted by housing emergencies are already struggling financially, any disruption can kick off a cascading domino effect of personally disastrous situations. The challenge before United Way of Porter County is therefore twofold— it must set aside funds for immediate logistical needs, while also maintaining and expanding long-term support networks that help rebuild an individual’s health, finance, and housing stability. 

"Having funding set aside is going to be critical in maintaining the flexibility to act and provide support in emergency situations," Olesker said. "We continue to work on expanding our knowledge of local aid programs and nonprofits so that we can include them in our efforts."

Ultimately, the United Way of Porter County’s goal is to provide whatever services are needed to assist people through whatever emergency arises, be it flood, fire, or financial, and avoid a crisis whenever possible.

 For more information about disaster recovery services offered by the United Way of Porter County, or to make a donation, visit their website at