Psychologist Volunteers to Help People During Their Darkest Hours
By EILENE E. GUY
American Red Cross volunteer
CLEVELAND – “Volunteering with the American Red Cross in general, and for me in particular, represents a profound privilege. It doesn’t take long to realize how close we all are to needing help,” says Kriss Wiant.
A psychologist by profession and a humanitarian by nature, Kriss finds valuable perspective and rich reward as a disaster mental health volunteer.
With more than 20 years of experience helping children, adults and families in conventional clinical settings, Kriss was looking for what he calls “innovative applications of psychology.” A chance encounter with a Red Cross Disaster Action Team member led him to join that group, responding to home fires, floods or tornadoes across the Greater Cleveland area.
“Connecting people with primary resources – food, shelter, essential medications – that goes a long way to helping people in their time of acute need,” he says.
Eventually, Kriss – who makes his home in Brecksville – decided to make himself available for deployment to larger-scale disasters beyond the Buckeye State. Of the nine major relief operations he has traveled to, most have been related to tornadoes or hurricanes. Although working conditions can be challenging and stress levels high, Wiant knows how to make a difference.
“The unifying need among those traumatized by a disaster is the loss of courage, the loss of hope,” he says in the gentle, knowing tone of someone who understands trauma as both a doctor of psychology and a first-hand observer. “So what we do is restore courage, restore hope. Most of us can do that, even just by our presence.”
Kriss believes that even the untrained individual can offer psychological first aid. “You are standing on the shore for someone in the deep,” he says. “The only question is, how far can you wade in to reach that person.”
In the wake of a tragedy as dramatic as the May 2013 tornado that killed 24 people – including nine children – and caused an estimated $2 billion in property damage in Moore, Okla., Kriss was part of a large Red Cross mental health outreach to families of those who lost their lives or were seriously injured.
Some people, he found, had the emotional stamina to surround themselves with family, friends and faith; others he pointed toward local resources for longer-term professional support.
At the same time, he watches for signs of stress among the Red Cross responders who work long hours and interact with clients in often-devastating situations. He encourages workers to talk, to share their experiences. “That can be very therapeutic ,” he says.
Kriss is one of some 300 Red Cross disaster volunteers across the 22 counties of Northeast Ohio. Most respond to local disasters or participate in prevention activities such as Operation Save-a-Life, installing thousands of smoke alarms. Those with the time, training and experience can volunteer to respond farther from home.
In addition to his work helping people affected by disasters, Kriss provides Service to the Armed Forces. In fact, he is one of 5 recipients of the Vega Award, given annually to individuals or groups that have performed outstanding service in a department/line of service for the Greater Cleveland Chapter. Kriss was honored for his on-going support to the military community, helping to develop Reconnection Workshop-type materials that have been used in two pilot projects with the Troop and Family Assistance Center, as well as with the Ohio Army National Guard Recruit Sustainment Program. The workshops aim to provide coping and reunification skills to family members of National Guard recruits who are preparing to leave for basic training or Advanced Individualized Training, as well as educate families on a board range of services within the military community and via the Red Cross. In addition, Kriss makes follow up calls to those who have utilized the Red Cross Emergency Communication services, completes home visits to local veterans, and is a Reconnection Workshop Facilitator.
Other Vega Award winners, honored on Saturday, September 17, are Rita Szymczak, Mark Cline, Rhoda Seifert, and SAF Reconnetion Workshop Facilitators Tom Adams, Lynne Wiseman, Jackie Otte, and Kathy Parsons.
Visit the Greater Cleveland Chapter Facebook Page to see a photo gallery from the Volunteer Recognition Event.
To learn more about the wide variety of volunteer opportunities with the Red Cross – including Service to the Armed Forces, health and safety education, and blood services – visit www.redcross.org/neo and click on “volunteer.”