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“We're so blessed” - and volunteer shares those blessings

By Emily Morris, Staff writer
Montgomery Newspapers (Pennsylvania)
March 14, 2007

West Rockhill resident Ben Botti has kept himself fairly busy in his retirement by working as a travel agent of sorts.

But the trips he plans require a lot of emotional preparation before, during and after. He's traveled on quite a few of the trips himself, and experienced the emotions firsthand when he returned from his first trip accompanied by his wife, Amy.

"She wanted to sell everything and go back and be missionaries," said Botti, 67. "And I said, 'whoa, let's wait a day or two'."

Ben Botti team
Matching T-shirts help with solidarity in Pascagoula, Miss. From left are, Jeremy Gates of Phoenixville and First United Methodist Church members Ben Botti, Karyn Fisher, Janet Dietrich, Roger Stauffer and Pat Stauffer. Not pictured is Barbara Sveen.
Anger, guilt and frustration are all typical emotions experienced by those traveling on a first mission trip to help others in need. Helping people anticipate those emotions, as well as the emotions that they will encounter from those they are helping, is one of the most important parts of Botti's job.

Botti took the volunteer job as the Volunteers In Mission (VIM) coordinator for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church after being recommended for the position in 2002. He has been involved in mission work since 1994 through his church, First United Methodist in Perkasie. Botti began the job after a former coordinator found out he had spent his career as a civil engineer working in construction and thought his skills would be a major asset to mission work - and they have been. Botti traveled with former FUMC Pastor Phil Poncé when he was the VIM coordinator. Poncé would handle the spiritual aspect of the work while Botti offered the necessary construction knowledge.

In his first several years of mission work, Botti traveled to Honduras, Trinidad, Grenada and Antigua, taking one international trip each year. There, the groups would help with recovery from flooding, hurricanes and other disasters by building homes, churches and doing whatever needed to be done. In fact, versatility is another pillar of mission work that the church emphasizes.

"We stress flexibility in our training because we really are often surprised when we get there that we're doing something other than what we expected," said Botti.

The prime focus of Botti's job is to perform training sessions to prepare people to deal with these feelings while being sensitive to the culture and emotions of those who are the victims of disaster.

The training sessions do not include practical knowledge like how to hang drywall or install insulation. Those are skills that the group is expected to have in its makeup and can thus pass on during the trip.

"We need to have somebody that knows what they're doing," said Botti of each group's make-up. "If the leader is good at his job or her job, then they can find jobs for everybody."

Botti teaches the groups how to deal with the emotional aspects - the anger and guilt people feel when they compare their own lives to those they are helping - in many cases, people who have lost everything. Botti said people often start with euphoria over being in a new place so different from their own. This soon leads to frustration over cultural differences in how things are done and sometimes, why more can't be done. That leads through several more stages until finally, if the groups could be there long enough, they would have acceptance of their home culture as well as the one where they find themselves on the trip, Botti said.

Botti's workload has increased drastically in the past couple years. Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the UMVIM coordinated only a handful of trips each year, most of them internationally. Domestic groups were sent out as needed. Since Katrina, however, UMVIM has sent out 80 trips just to the Gulf Coast, with 60 of those trips occurring within the last year.

"My job now, since Katrina, has been basically a full-time job," said Botti, who said he was initially working 40 to 60 hours a week. Lately, that amount has cut back some, but he has not had the chance to do any consulting work on the side since the first two days after Katrina hit when he was wrapping up a project in Philadelphia. Overall, he seems to enjoy the direction his path has taken.

"It's very rewarding," said Botti of the work, which he said is often life altering for people.

Botti recalls the story of one woman who approached him at a regional meeting for the two towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Miss. that were adopted by Bucks County after Katrina hit. She asked about how she could get involved in trips to the region, and he added her to an e-mail list about groups that were going down to the region. One day he received a thank you card from her letting him know that she had hooked up with a group going down from West Lawn United Methodist Church located on the far side of Reading.

Receiving notes of appreciation from people who have been greatly affected or moved by mission trips is not strange to Botti. However, Botti later found out that the woman was regularly commuting from the Doylestown area to attend church in West Lawn with the group she had met. Prior to that, she had not attended church regularly in more than 20 years.

"It does transform lives," said Botti. "It affects people on the receiving end, too."

One couple, Darrell and Bernice, stick out in Botti's mind. The couple owned a home that was one of the projects that a group from First United Methodist Church helped with reconstruction after Katrina. Bernice explained to the group that her husband Darrell had trouble motivating himself to even clean out the house after the storm or help prepare it for reconstruction. He felt it was a waste and that his house was gone forever. This is where the mission teams come in and offer a different brand of reconstruction - the gift of hope.

"[Bernice] said it wasn't until the teams started to come down there and were laughing, singing and joking that he started to perk up and have some interest in it," said Botti.

One of Botti's favorite memories and pictures from that trip is one where Darrell helps install the deadbolt on the front door - a finishing touch on a home he thought could never be restored.

In fact, this is what mission work is all about.

"We stress in our training that the goal of our trip is not the project," said Botti. The main goal is to listen and talk with people about what they've been through. "If they want to talk, stop and talk with them and the project will get done somehow."

The first response groups - those who are the first volunteers to arrive after a tragedy strikes - actually include a "listener" whose only job is to listen to the people's stories.

"It's cathartic for people to be able to talk about their experience," Botti said.

For the volunteers, much of the life-changing thoughts and challenges can occur both during and after the process.

There continue to be many changes as the number of volunteers interested in helping increases. In February, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, which focuses on challenging church members into service, and United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which responds to disasters, held a conference to focus on working together to smooth out challenges the groups have faced as disaster response groups become more necessary.

No matter what the future holds, volunteers like Botti and all those he has worked with over the years will become relied upon more to reach out and help those who are less fortunate, and in many cases, those who cannot help themselves for any number of reasons.

"I surely appreciate what we have more," said Botti of how his work has affected him. "It always amazes me when I come from a place like Honduras with open sewers, ditches and creeks. To get on a plane in Honduras and fly for a couple hours and land in Miami, and circle around before landing and see all the houses with the pools and all the cars on the highway...An hour and a half, two hours ago, you left a place where people are living in huts. We're so blessed and we take it for granted, and I don't think I'll ever get used to that."