Currently, that means looking toward Costa Rica, where a magnitude 6.1 earthquake on Jan. 8 has caused deaths and injuries in double digits and left parts of the countryside cut off and in need of supplies.
Often, the group sends a team to the scene immediately after a disaster to collect and transmit information about the needs on-site. But in this case, the earthquake hit only 20 miles from the San José home of Hearts With Hands International Director Dwight Parrish, who's a minister in addition to his work for the nonprofit. Even so, getting information back to the organization has been difficult as mudslides have blocked most roads, making travel by vehicle impossible, Executive Director Bill Bradley reports.
Packing food and medical supplies on his back, Parrish and others hiked seven miles to a village where he'd been ministering.
Hearts with Hands began in 1997, when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. Run out of a football-field-size tent, the group originally operated under the umbrella of Trinity Baptist Church in Asheville. Within the next few years, however, the organization morphed into a standalone, nondenominational Christian nonprofit and responded to its first international disaster (Hurricane Mitch in Honduras). These days, Hearts with Hands coordinates funds and volunteers from 400 churches, boasts a database containing 5,000 individuals and 2,000 private businesses, and manages a $500,000 budget. Although the organization identifies itself as Christian, it focuses its efforts on material support rather than on preaching the gospel.
Along the way, the group has learned the need for flexibility on the heels of a major disaster. When the 2004 tsunami hit India, for example, Hearts With Hands got to work -- despite having no local contacts.
"We didn't really have any connections," says Bradley. "But it didn't take but a minute to find out where to go. You have to think way ahead and make up some things on the fly."
Whenever possible, however, the group relies on a network of international relationships. In 2007, for example, a church in the Republic of Georgia saw Bradley speaking at Trinity Baptist via a Web broadcast and sent a check to support relief efforts following tornado damage in Florida. So when Russia invaded the neighboring country last August, Hearts with Hands could use that connection to facilitate sending containers of clothing and supplies.
Bradley says his organization's response capability is proportionate to the amount of media attention a particular disaster gets. High-profile events like the 2004 tsunami tend to rally churches and trigger more donations. To date, the Costa Rican earthquake hasn't prompted that kind of charitable groundswell, says Bradley. But he hopes that as more information about the scope of the damage comes to light, more donations will follow.
Info: Hearts With Hands Inc., 951 Sand Hill Road, Asheville NC 28806 (667-1912 or 800-726-9185; www.heartswithhands.org).