September 17, 2012 by Kristen deRoo VanderBerg / Topics: 50th Anniversary, International Disaster, International Disaster Response, IRM, Kristen deRoo VanderBerg
Elly Dalmaijer says she and her husband, Jack, “never plan anything... we just live life as it goes.” It’s a formula that in the past 12 years has taken the St. Albert, Alberta, couple to 12 countries as volunteer International Relief Managers with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, now known as World Renew, to bring assistance when and where disaster strikes.

Jack & Elly Dalmaijer in the Congo

Like the 26 other International Relief Managers on World Renew’s roster, they are accustomed to being called on a moment’s notice.

Their involvement with World Renew’s International Disaster Response started in 2000, shortly after Jack and his partners sold their construction-related business. With more time on their hands, the couple began to look for opportunities to serve God in a new way. Like the 26 other International Relief Managers on World Renew’s roster, they are accustomed to being called on a moment’s notice.

We had to decide, ‘Is this enough?’” recalls Elly. “We could chase money the rest of our lives, or we could decide that we had enough and use what we had and our lifetime of skills in a different context.”

She and her husband had already been involved in their local church, St. Albert Christian Reformed Church, as well as with the board of The Kings University College in Edmonton, Alberta, and various other activities. “We now wanted to serve the worldwide church of God,” she says.

An opportunity arose that summer while the Dalmaijers were on vacation.

“There was a flood in Mozambique,” recalls Elly. “Jack and I were on holidays visiting friends in the States and we got an e-mail from our pastor who said there was a bulletin notice that World Renew was looking for an accountant to go to Mozambique.”

Jack called World Renew and was told that the position had already been filled. Three weeks later, the couple returned home and decided to go on a camping trip. 

“Jack went to pick up the camper and the phone rang,” Elly remembers. “It turns out that the accountant who was going to go to Mozambique could no longer go. They wanted to know if we could go, and if we could leave the next week.

“I put the phone down, went outside, and there came Jack with the camper. I said, ‘You’d better take it back; we’re going to Mozambique.’”

“I put the phone down, went outside, and there came Jack with the camper. I said, ‘You’d better take it back; we’re going to Mozambique.’”

After consulting an atlas to find out where Mozambique is, the couple prepared for their first volunteer service abroad. Jack’s assignment for the next four months was to train staff at the Presbyterian Church of Mozambique to manage the accounting for a large World Renew-funded disaster response project. The church did not have a computer or software, so Jack brought those with him. 

“I went as the wife,” Elly says.  “I had to cook and clean.”

Then, World Renew received a note from a remote community that said their village had washed away. “They said they could work really hard, but had no access to basic tools and materials.”

Janet Janz, World Renew’s Disaster Response Program manager in Eastern Africa at the time, suggested that Elly manage that project. She taught Elly how to write a proposal for $15,000 and set her to work.

“I started meeting with the community,” Elly recalls. “I slept on the floor with snakes and chickens and the women all huddled around me.”

The project was very successful. Of the planned 66 houses, 64 were built by the community members themselves. By the time that project wrapped up, Jack’s was also finishing, so the couple went home to Alberta. 

Two weeks later, the phone rang again. World Renew wanted to follow up their relief programs in Southern Mozambique with an animal distribution to replace livestock that drowned in the flood. Because of Elly’s success at managing the house-building project, they wanted the Dalmaijers to manage this $400,000 program.

So Jack and Elly repacked their bags, said goodbye to their family, and World Renew’s International Relief Manager program was born.

So Jack and Elly repacked their bags, said goodbye to their family, and World Renew’s International Relief Manager program was born.

“That was the beginning and we’ve never really looked back,” said Elly.

Since that original trip to Mozambique, the Dalmaijers have managed projects in Mozambique, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala, Mali, Sudan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. In December 2011, they returned from their most recent project – managing food assistance projects in Ethiopia.  

“Most of the time we spend four to six months away,” Elly says. “We come home for a while and then go again.”

Their time overseas is no vacation. International Relief Managers work hard, managing the logistics of projects with budgets ranging from $500,000 to $2 million. They also have to deal with the physical and cultural realities of living in different countries.

“For us, the hardest project physically was the five months that we were in Darfur, Sudan,” Elly says. “The living conditions were very primitive. We lived on a compound and were under United Nations rule. We had to follow all kinds of security guidelines and were not allowed to leave the compound.”

She recalls that it was very hot and, there was no running water in the house. “Water was delivered to us by donkey. We used to call that ‘having running water.’”

She jokes that, “The highlight of our day was at 7:30 p.m.  We’d sit outside the gate and watch the cows come home.”

The work also takes an emotional toll. 

“Emotionally, the hardest project that we’ve worked on was in Uganda after the Lord’s Resistance Army had been there. The women kept coming to me and wanting to tell their stories of children being abducted.

“In one distribution, there were a whole group of girls who were about 12 and they were all pregnant from being raped. The fact that that war was so focused on children was really hard to cope with.”

Often, after a disaster, people are further stripped of their dignity in the way that they receive aid.  They can become numbers in a relief project and lose their individual identity and self-worth.  World Renew’s IRMs strive to change that.

“Disaster survivors are often expected to line up for everything. When they get to the front of line, someone grab’s their finger, pushes it down into a jar of ink, and presses their fingerprint on the beneficiary list.  All of this without once making eye contact or acknowledging the person’s pain or dignity,” said Elly.  “We look for small ways to honor the strength, courage, and survival skills of our beneficiaries.  One small thing we’ve done is create a strip of paper with an oval hole cut out of it.  By placing the opening on the place where a thumbprint needs to go, no one needs to help the beneficiary push her finger in the jar of ink or place a thumbprint on the page.  She can do it herself.  In honoring those who suffer, we honor Jesus.”

Wayne de Jong, World Renew’s Director of Disaster Response & Rehabilitation, says that volunteers such as the Dalmaijers are a vital component of World  Renew’s disaster response program.

“Having International Relief Managers is a crucial component of our disaster response ministry,” de Jong said.  “When disasters strike, we have trained, qualified people who can go and manage the details for us. 

“We would not have been able to respond as quickly and effectively to recent disasters such as the South Asia tsunami or the Haiti earthquake without our IRMs.”

Currently, World Renew is using its IRMs to manage food assistance and food-for-work projects in the coastal region of Kenya, as well as in its West Africa drought response. 

As for the Dalmaijers, these days Elly is spending part of her time recruiting new IRMs.  She has led information workshops at churches across the United States and Canada and has developed modules to help prepare prospective volunteers for what they will experience.

Through it all, the Dalmaijers remain modest about their contribution to ministry. 

“When I was 10 there was a big flood in Holland and the whole world was sending money and supplies,” Elly says. “I remember it so vividly – all these countries I barely knew or ever thought about were helping Holland. That always stuck with me. Now in my own way I’m paying back a little bit.”

For more information about World Renew’s International Relief Manager program or to attend one of three IRM workshops taking place in three Michigan cities this April, contact Bernice Oostdyk at 1-800-730-3490.

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