Biographical Stories of Women in the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren —
This brief article could never do Esther Bittinger justice. When I first walked into her home, I was welcomed as if I were an old friend. She is gentle and humble, yet there is a passion that burns inside her that is impossible to miss. After the usual questions—where are you from? (Florida) and what did you do for a living? (second grade teacher and later a reading specialist), we finally came to the question I had been burning to ask since I had arrived. I asked her to tell me about her work as a Disaster Child Care specialist after she retired. Upon retiring, Esther decided that she wanted to give back now that she had the time. She found her opportunity with the Church of the Brethren and its emergency response ministries, with a division that ministers specifically to the needs of children in disaster scenarios.
Esther’s advice to anyone who wants to work in disaster relief is to be flexible. “You never know what it’s going to be like. You have to be ready to swing this way or that way.” She says that her training has helped her be flexible. The Church of the Brethren’s disaster ministries works directly with Red Cross and FEMA to use trained individuals to deal with the needs of traumatized children following both natural and manmade disasters. There are trainings throughout the country with a specific ministry in post-plane crash communities. Church of the Brethren also hosts an annual disaster benefit sale at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, which to date, has raised over a million dollars for the ministry. Individual church donations help fund “Kits of Comfort” that volunteers assemble. These suitcases contain everything a volunteer would need to set up a child disaster center, including cuddly toys, books, puzzles, cars, fire engines and other emergency equipment, and art supplies. Volunteers then help children express their trauma through these toys and art work in order to process the disaster.
When Esther turned 80 recently, she was up for recertification, but decided to allow others to take her place. She has not stopped volunteering, however. As a retired reading specialist, she now works twice a month at Second Home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with under-resourced children to help them with their reading skills. She has also worked with refugees to help them pass their citizenship tests and as a volunteer visitor at Bridgewater Retirement Community. She says that service is simply part of her life. “It’s just something I wanted to do to help make the world a better place.”
by Hannah Facknitz | JMU Student Writer
Reprinted with permission, from Winter 2014 “The Bridge”, a quaterly publication of the Bridgewater Retirement Community.