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How to Effectively (and Respectfully) Help a Community in Crisis

Advice and observations from AARP Michigan after working on the ground in Flint

Editor's Note — June 2020

The following article was published in 2017 and relates to the lead contamination water crisis in Flint, Michigan. However, the guidance provided stands the test of time and — and could be helpful to the many communities in crises throughout the nation that are working to confront challenges around equity, access, safety and health. 

Links to recent news articles about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, appear at the end of this page.

Two women representing AARP Michigan visit with a Flint resident who's sitting on her front porch.


AARP volunteers explain the water pipe replacement program to a resident in Flint, Michigan.

In the fall of 2016, AARP Michigan committed itself to helping the residents of Flint, Michigan, navigate the process for replacing the lead-tainted city pipes that connect the main water line to their homes.

The plumbing work was free to homeowners, but to get on the list each needed to sign a consent form. Volunteers from AARP and other organizations went door to door to help get the forms signed. (See "Helping Secure Drinkable Water in Flint.")

Along with her staff and volunteers, AARP Michigan State Director Paula Cunningham spent a lot of time on the ground in Flint. What they collectively learned can help others who are working to help a community in crisis. Cunningham offers the following words of wisdom:

Many Helping Hands

A team photo of AARP Michigan staff and volunteers.


Staff and volunteers from AARP Michigan strike a pose before setting out to door-knock in Flint, Michigan.

  1. Listen to the voices of the people who have been impacted by the crisis, and be sure to listen to a diverse audience.

  2. Don't assume you know what people need. Many outside of Flint would say, "Bring more water to Flint." However, at a certain point, residents didn't need or want more water bottles — they wanted a lasting solution. 

  3. Document needs based on the feedback received. It's important to formally capture and refer to such information. It's very useful for showing and staying focused on needs. 

  4. Prioritize the needs and tell the community what you've learned and how you plan to help. It's rarely possible to do everything needed, but let the community know what, based on their feedback, you can do. 

  5. Fully engage. Don't quit until the job is completed. The easiest thing for AARP to do for Flint would have been to write a check. However, money wasn't the biggest need. If a longer term commitment couldn't be made to stay connected to Flint, it might have been preferable and kinder not to engage at all. 

  6. Communicate, collaborate and coordinate. It's important to communicate the plan to as many people and organizations as possible. People coming to a plan with fresh ears and eyes can help prevent mistakes. Collaborate with willing, like-minded, focused partners. Coordinate with volunteers and others to develop and implement a well thought-out plan. 

  7. Cheer progress. Sometimes the task can seem so daunting that progress can be overlooked. Occasionally take a few moments to celebrate and to say "Thank you" to those who have helped. 


Article published October 2017 

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