West Virginia Woman Leads Disaster Relief, Community Support Efforts and More

Daily Point of Light # 7824 May 31, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Vanessa VanGilder. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

What does a former EMT decide to do with her time? For Vanessa VanGilder, she’s chosen to dedicate her tireless volunteer efforts across a spectrum of organizations in West Virginia. Her diverse roles range from promoting literacy and assisting in disaster relief to advocating for individuals with disabilities – and she remains passionate, enthusiastic and humble along the way.

At the core of Vanessa’s volunteer activities is her work with Heart+Hand Outreach Ministries, where she dedicates significant time to managing book donations. Her efforts ensure that mini free libraries throughout her community are consistently stocked, distributing thousands of books to those eager for knowledge and escape through reading.

Vanessa’s role extends beyond literacy; she is also an active volunteer firefighter with the Pinch Volunteer Fire Department, where she serves both as a firefighter and the secretary of the Board. Her commitment to public safety is paralleled by her involvement with Team Rubicon, a disaster response organization. Here, Vanessa not only responds to disasters but also educates others, teaching classes on site surveys, core operations and safety.

As the president of the West Virginia Behavioral Health Planning Council, Vanessa champions the needs of West Virginians with disabilities. Her leadership helps shape policies and programs that directly affect the quality of life for many individuals. Additionally, her advocacy work spans several boards and councils, including the Appalachian Center for Independent Living, the WV Aged and Disabled Waiver Advisory Board and the Mid Atlantic ADA Advisory Board.

Each position Vanessa holds demonstrates her versatile skills and deep desire to give back to her community in multiple capacities. Read more about Vanessa’s volunteer work and what propels her forward.

Vanessa VanGilder fills the free little libraries in her community with books from Heart+Hand Outreach Ministries’ Thrift Store.

Tell us about your volunteer roles with Heart+Hand Outreach Ministries and Team Rubicon.

One of my favorite places to volunteer is the Heart+Hand Thrift Store. Not only do I like thrift stores, but they also have a food pantry and they do social services. So the income from the thrift store goes toward helping people feed their families and keeping their lights and gas on – which I really appreciate, having been in that situation before. Years ago, I went to a food pantry, and while I’m sad that that’s a needed thing, I’m so happy I can help.

I do their books, DVDs, greeting cards and gift bags. Those are the niche items I’m responsible for. I love books anyway – my mom was a teacher and I love to read. It’s exciting to see all the different books that come out of the store. Then, Heart+Hand lets me take books and go fill up free little libraries around town. Last year, I filled over 500 free little libraries.

Then, I just got back last night from Michigan. I volunteer with Team Rubicon, which is a disaster response group. And we get mobilized to wherever there’s flooding, hurricanes or other weather events. I was just in Michigan for a tornado they had with a lot of damage. I help determine where the teams will go. Some of the places where our teams were, contractors were citing $50,000 for the work we were offering free of charge. We focus on people with disabilities or who don’t have insurance – people who wouldn’t be financially able to clean up their property and get back in their houses. It is so rewarding to help people who otherwise couldn’t afford to get the trees laying across their driveways cut and removed. It’s really heartwarming when all that gets done and the homeowners and community thank you for what you do.

What inspired you to get started with these initiatives?

I have a background in emergency services. I was an EMT and served in the fire department and was a 911 dispatcher, for many years. We have a lot of flooding disasters in West Virginia, so I got involved in my own community when there’s flooding. I had let my EMT card go and wasn’t working at 911 anymore, and in 2016, we had what we called a thousand-year flood. I was sitting at home not doing anything, and I felt so bad that I wasn’t out there helping. So I found and joined Team Rubicon and my local fire department at the same time, so I could be out there helping people.

Team Rubicon teaches you the proper way to muck out a house or do other response work. We have excellent training before we do anything. We have classes all the time to benefit ourselves so we can benefit the homeowners.

In terms of Heart+Hand, I had been a thrift store shopper for a long time, and a leader at the store put out a Facebook post to see if people wanted to come get books to help fill up the free little libraries. So I did that, then I started helping in the store. I started with adult books, then went to children’s books, then DVDs, then greeting cards… and it just expanded to all these areas.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

Just recently, in Michigan, whenever we were out in the community, people thanked us for all the help that we were providing – even if they weren’t affected personally – they knew we were there helping the community. The businesses around town donated food for our meals and gave us discounts on meals because we were there helping. That’s what it’s all about: helping each other.

Vanessa makes calls and helps figure out where to deploy team members in disaster zones.

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

A lot of things wouldn’t get accomplished if it weren’t for volunteers. I’m hoping that later on, when I can’t necessarily do some of these volunteer activities or services, that there will be somebody out there who will step in. This way, service keeps on giving, through the next generation.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

I think the first thing is to find what your passion is. Are you passionate about some kind of sport or some kind of cause? Research what’s out there. There are always people and places needing volunteer help. There are volunteer sports. Church activities. Find something you love, then it’s not really a chore. It becomes something you look forward to doing. Three days a week, I get up really early, I look forward to going down to the thrift store, seeing what books have been donated and getting them organized.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

There’s a volunteer activity out there for everybody! There are things people can do from home – even in disaster response. There’s something for everyone, and you may just have to look a little harder to find it.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Vanessa? Find local volunteer opportunities.

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