In December 2023, after 27 years of serving disaster-ravaged communities around the country, Dale and Jean Peercy retired from volunteering with Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR). Their work with LDR took them to 49 of 50 states, influenced the design and implementation of national long-term recovery systems, inspired the establishment of community-based response organizations and created foundations for recovery work that will last for years to come.

When Dale and Jean met, they were both entrepreneurs who owned construction businesses, and their encounter on a shared job site led to their decades-long romance. Their skills, craftsmanship and reputation for quality won them contracts for large-scale residential homes. Despite their success, the Peercys felt there was more they could be doing for people. So they turned to their shared faith and explored ELCA ministries in which they could serve as a couple. That search led them to LDR.

The Peercys’ work in long-term disaster recovery and rebuilding officially started in 1997. LDR hired them through the Southern Ohio Synod and asked them to deploy to the Virgin Islands for six months. Their work there would be in response to Hurricane Marilyn, which had impacted the island two years earlier. Marilyn caused severe damage to the islands and, in particular, St. Thomas, where an estimated 80% of homes and businesses were destroyed and at least 10,000 people were left homeless.

Many volunteers had visited the islands and helped repair and rebuild residential homes, but the Peercys’ role was to help congregations rebuild following the storm damage. When not actively working on church buildings, the Peercys assisted in coordinating construction and volunteers in St. Thomas and St. Croix. There they developed one of the cornerstones of the trainings they would eventually create.

“One of the biggest things we had to do was earn [residents’] trust—and it didn’t happen right away.”

“One of the biggest things we had to do was earn [residents’] trust—and it didn’t happen right away,” Dale said. Community members were leery of who Dale and Jean were and why they were there. In response the Peercys diligently embedded themselves in the community, building connections and relationships and striving to do their work with empathy, character and integrity. “Trust-building is something that changed our lives [and] how we look at walking with people,” Dale continued. Jean agreed. Building trust had always been part of their lives as business owners, she said, “but the work we did [in the Virgin Islands] opened it up a lot clearer.”

That trust often transcended language. While working with volunteers in St. Thomas, Dale found himself in a small house with an unusual décor. “The couch was in an odd place, and the chair was in an odd place,” he said. “Really, everything was not where I would put things.” The homeowner spoke no English and, in response to Dale’s perplexed look, moved the furniture. “There were big holes in the floor,” Dale revealed. “They were placing furniture to cover the holes.”

Dale and his team went to work fixing the issues and laying down new plywood but quickly discovered that there wasn’t a 45-degree angle in the house. When cutting plywood, Dale had to cut all four sides to get them to fit correctly. At the end of the day, with just a few finishing touches left to wrap the job, he pointed to the floor to get the homeowner’s reaction. He “threw his arms up over his head and danced across the floor,” Dale said. “So, yeah—no English. But we sure could communicate.”

A new model

After the Virgin Islands the second phase of the Peercys’ work took them to South Dakota, Texas and North Carolina. During this period their work coordinating rebuilds and managing volunteers caught the attention of national disaster response organizations and the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). Their care and compassion for those volunteering their time continued to stand out.

When two hearing-impaired youth volunteer groups were seeking service opportunities as part of a mission trip to South Dakota, they “asked a lot of different denominations if they could help, and nobody would take them,” Jean said. “Finally someone said, ‘Just send them to the Peercys.’” Jean and Dale didn’t know sign language, but through humility and interpreters they were able to get both groups working on a rebuild for a shelter belt, linear rows of vegetation planted for environmental purposes. The teens learned how to use chainsaws by feel, and a few who had never seen horses before had an opportunity to ride them through prairies. “I was a little worried,” Dale said. “But we learned the homeowner had experience working with the hearing-impaired, and it was like God already had a plan for us. All we had to do was walk it through.”

From South Dakota the couple moved to Texas, where Gilbert Furst, then-director for LDR, asked them to work on a new, interfaith long-term recovery response group. “Gil said he didn’t really know how it was going to work because it was a new thing they were trying for disaster response,” Jean said. “But we had a lot of experience coordinating other folks coming in from different faiths and volunteer groups.” That experience continued to grow as the Peercys worked with an early iteration of the organization World Renew and helped coordinate volunteers from multiple denominations.

“It was like God already had a plan for us. All we had to do was walk it through.”

“It was neat because people in the communities felt it didn’t matter whether you had faith or what church you went to; [they] were coming in together and working to make people whole,” Jean said. “And people looked at it as the whole church coming together to work.”

The couple’s call deepened in 2001 when they traveled to Houston in response to Tropical Storm Allison, which had devastated southeast Texas. Heavy rainfall and flooding in June had left over 30,000 people homeless. Focus on the storm lessened significantly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, but the Peercys remained in Texas, helping manage what little funds arrived for recovery. The Peercys said they focused their work there on low-income residents, to the dismay of some residents who felt they were prioritizing the wrong neighborhoods. Their work “became a witness to other people that it’s not that you just care about those who have,” Jean said. “You care for all of them.

“We all do this for that one person that is suffering as a survivor, that is in pain or trouble or that needs a helping hand. If we lose track of that, then we might as well go home, because we’ve lost it all.”

From the front lines to the lecture hall

Through 2001 the Peercys continued their work, moving from one impacted community to another and helping with rebuilding efforts and volunteer coordination under the new interfaith model. Furst had called them to ask about the work they’d been doing, Dale said. “I laughed and asked him, ‘Well, what have you heard?’”

Their work prompted calls to LDR from representatives of many denominations, they said, who asked where the Peercys were working and whether they might be available to help in a particular community. Furst asked the couple what it was they were doing that nobody else was, Dale said.

The couple trained responding organizations on how to establish long-term recovery groups and how different components of these groups intersected with each other. The Peercys explained that Furst asked them to design a flow chart that showed the intersections of case management, volunteer management and donation management, among other areas.

In 2003 the Peercys presented their chart at a VOAD conference. “All of a sudden, [everyone there] started talking over our heads—but it sounded like they were happy,” said Jean, laughing. “It was very humbling.” Without realizing it the Peercys had put on paper, and into practice, a much-needed coordination system for multiple agencies responding to a disaster. Attendees approached the Peercys and asked whether they would be willing to provide training for other organizations, they said.

National VOAD approved the flow chart, and the Peercys began training responding agencies. “We would fly from place to place with this little piece of paper, telling people how to do the work,” Jean said. “And that was a hard transition for us.” Used to being on the front lines of response and working directly with survivors, the Peercys now found themselves in conference rooms and lecture halls, speaking to groups of people. “We did our work by knowing what the survivor needed and being able to supply those needs, whatever that was,” Dale said. “Now it was a sense of leadership.”

Furst asked the couple what it was they were doing that nobody else was.

The Peercys spent years traveling to gatherings across the country, refining their training tools, inspiring the creation of new community response organizations and sharing their message of serving the less fortunate first.

Now, as they retire, the Peercys are enthusiastic about LDR’s future. “We know the world is changing and disaster response is changing,” Jean said. “Our work is tried and tested and will likely last forever, but how that’s presented in a newer and different generation is exciting to think about.” Dale nodded and agreed: “We just don’t want to lose sight of that one person that needs help.”

“When you’ve built something on the ground that can be replicated when others need it, you’ve worked yourself out of a job,” Jean said. “Looking back over these past 27 years, we have no regrets [about] this road that we’ve traveled.”

As the Peercys neared retirement, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote a commendation recognizing their contributions to LDR and the impact they had on so many. “God has brought healing and wholeness, courage and strength, hope and love to God’s people through you as servants of the gospel,” Eaton wrote to them. “I give thanks to God that you have served so generously and selflessly, often at great sacrifice.

“As you enter a new chapter in your life in Christ, I join all who celebrate what God has accomplished in your life to this day and eagerly anticipate the Spirit’s unfolding of God’s promises for your life in the days to come.”

Sean Coffman
Sean Coffman is Lutheran Disaster Response program director for training and networks.

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