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 10 years has taken the St. Albert, Alberta, couple to 11 countries as international relief managers—volunteers working with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) to bring aid when and where disaster strikes.
Like the 20 other international relief managers on CRWRC’s roster, they are accustomed to being called on at a moment’s notice.
Their involvement with CRWRC’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.
“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 Jack had already been involved in their local church, St. Albert Christian Reformed Church, as well as with the board of The King’s University College in Edmonton, Alberta, and various other activities. “We now wanted to serve the worldwide church of God,” Elly 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. We got an e-mail from our pastor who said that CRWRC was looking for an accountant to go to Mozambique.”
Jack called CRWRC 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 man 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.’”
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 CRWRC-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 CRWRC received a note from a remote community whose village had washed away. “They said they could work really hard, but had no access to basic tools and materials.”
Janet Janz, CRWRC’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 a $15,000 grant 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 66 planned 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. CRWRC wanted to follow up their relief programs in southern Mozambique with an animal distribution to replace livestock that had 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 CRWRC’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, and Sudan. In December 2010 they returned from their most recent project: managing part of the flood response in Pakistan.
“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.”
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 [aid] distribution, there was a whole group of girls who were about 12, and they were all pregnant from being raped. Then we never heard from them again.
“The fact that that war was so focused on children was really hard to cope with.”
But the opportunity to serve others makes it all worthwhile, she adds.
Wayne deJong, CRWRC’s director of Disaster Response & Rehabilitation, says that volunteers such as the Dalmaijers provide vital support to CRWRC’s efforts.
“Having international relief managers is a crucial component of our disaster response ministry,” deJong 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.”
These days, Elly spends 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 CRWRC’s international relief manager program, visit www.crwrc.org/volunteer.