Disaster mental health volunteer helps people cope and heal after devastating losses

By Jason Copsey, American Red Cross volunteer

October 10, 2019- After Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the U.S. Virgin Islands in September 2017, the American Red Cross deployed volunteers to help provide food, clothing and shelter for impacted residents. Alongside these basic needs, the Red Cross deployed specialized volunteers trained to help individuals navigate the difficult emotional and psychological aftermath of a traumatic experience.

Adrienne Ford was one of the disaster mental health volunteers deployed to the Virgin Islands. Ford, a retired teacher and school counselor, joined the Red Cross as a volunteer in 2014 after learning about disaster mental health at a conference for school counselors. As an independently licensed counselor, Ford saw in the Red Cross an opportunity to continue practicing while serving those in need.

California Wildfires 2018

“The first time the Red Cross called on me to provide services was in response to the California wildfires in 2014,” said Ford. “There was a massive shelter set up at the Napa Valley fairgrounds. So many people had run for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”

Disaster mental health volunteers tend to the emotional trauma people experience after a disaster. They play a critical role in the delivery of the Red Cross mission by providing support, comfort and hope to people impacted by incidents of all sizes, from home fires to natural disasters.

California Wildfires 2017

“Ultimately, people want to tell their stories to begin the healing process,” said Ford. “As mental health workers, we know how to ask the right questions for people to begin telling the story of what they have been through. The anxiety that comes from living through a near- death experience is considerable and depression can often follow.”

During her Virgin Islands deployment, Ford encountered families that were continuing to live in severely damaged homes instead of shelters. Working as part of medical teams consisting of a nurse, mental health advocate and a case worker, Ford would visit families and monitor for risk factors.

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“There was one family we had seen a few times and were continuing to check on,” said Ford. “I had talked with the mother several times about her experience. Half of her house had collapsed during the storm. Her son, a teenager, had been trapped in part of the house, and for a period of time she feared the worst.”

While Ford was able to connect with the mother, the son was less forthcoming. Over time, Ford was able to build trust with the child.

Texas Floods 2019

“We talked about sports and things he was interested in,” says Ford. “Little by little, he let me ask him questions about his experience. He started telling me about what it was like for him to have been alone and the fear he had experienced.”

As first responders, Red Cross volunteers are often the connection between individuals and community resources and local agencies. Mental health volunteers are critical in this role, as trauma can easily trigger harmful tendencies for those without adequate coping skills. The early intervention of a Red Cross mental health volunteer can be a key factor in the recovery process.

Oroville Dam Spillway Compromised 2017

Ford said that over her five years as a Red Cross volunteer, it is the firsthand experience of individuals helping one another that has been most rewarding.

“The way communities respond to disasters renews your faith in humanity,” said Ford. “People really do take care of each other.”

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

Volunteers provide disaster relief for hidden concerns

By: Eric Alves, Regional Communications Specialist, American Red Cross of Northeast Ohio

The American Red Cross continues to assist residents affected by hurricanes in the Southeast.  Among the disaster relief workers who are playing a role are mental health volunteers.

Red Cross mental health volunteers are a treasured group of individuals. They are all licensed independent health practitioners: psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers and psychiatric registered nurses.

California Wildfires 2018

In addition to being licensed professionally, mental health volunteers must take specialized Red Cross training in disaster mental health which, for the most part, is far different than what they do in their daily full-time jobs. The specialized training is based on many years of experience in disaster relief, from those who have lost precious mementos in a home fire to the victims of 9/11 and everyone in between.

Red Cross mental health volunteers provide immediate crisis management. They instruct clients in becoming more resilient and help them cope with the various emotions they may experience following their loss. While mental health volunteers do not do long-term counseling, if they determine a client would benefit from long-term intervention, they will make a referral to a proper mental health specialist. They will not refer the client to themselves or to any other member of the team.

California Wildfires 2017

“Many victims and survivors do not recognize the need for intervention or do not want to be judged or labeled if they are struggling with recovery,” said Renee Palagyi, senior program manager of disaster cycle services for the American Red Cross of Northeast Ohio. “Our disaster mental health volunteers can help them to recognize the normal and destigmatize the need for counseling.”

Northeast Ohio is particularly fortunate to have some of the finest and most experienced mental health volunteers. They never fail to step up as needed even though the majority have full-time positions or time-consuming private practices.

Edgardo Padin, a mental health volunteer from Northeast Ohio, deployed to assist in the 2018 California wildfires. Recently, he discussed his experience assisting individuals who lost their homes with their mental health needs.

Tennessee Wildfires 2016

While it is easy to see the physical damage that a home fire or a hurricane can cause, it is not often as easy to see the internal effects a disaster can have on an individual. On World Mental Health Day, it is important to recognize the disaster mental health volunteers who assist with disaster relief efforts to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

For more information on the Red Cross’ disaster mental health services or to become a volunteer, visit redcross.org/volunteer.

Mental Health Services Offered to Disaster Victims

Kim Kroh

Kim Kroh, Executive Director, Stark and Muskingum Lakes Chapter 

Did you know that the Red Cross offers mental health services to those who suffer from disasters? In the last seven weeks, Red Cross volunteers have provided more than 180,000 mental health and health services to support and care for those affected by hurricanes this season.

World Mental Health Day is observed on October 10th every year.  Kim Kroh, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Executive Director of the Stark and Muskingum Lakes Chapter, has worked with trauma victims for two decades.  She offers this observation:

Disasters in general can be very traumatizing for the individuals involved. They may lose everything they own and possibly even the life of a family member. Trauma processing can take place with the support of family and friends but often it requires professional intervention, especially to avoid long lasting mental health difficulties resulting from unprocessed trauma.

Shootings and other acts of violence will cause trauma and often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for the individuals involved in the violent act. In these situations, encouraging survivors to seek counseling would be most beneficial.

Licensed mental health professionals are among the volunteers who respond to disasters, from hurricanes to home fires.  For more information about volunteering for the Red Cross, visit our website at redcross.org/neo.

Monkey Business Lightens Red Cross Disaster Responses

By EILENE E. GUY
American Red Cross volunteer

AKRON, July 28, 2016 – “Oso” the toy monkey reported for duty at the American Red Cross operations center in Akron, alongside disaster responders in connection with the Republican National Convention in nearby Cleveland.

Oso is a veteran Red Cross volunteer. “She’s been to one disaster in Indiana, three in Kentucky, one in Wenatchee, Washington, a flood in South Carolina and hands-on training sessions all over,” said Jim Aldridge, Oso’s “service human.” (Without him, Oso is mobility challenged.) Aldridge was one of several dozen volunteers who geared up, just in case anything happened in connection with the RNC that created a need for Red Cross services.

Photo credit: Mary Williams, American Red Cross

When Oso wasn’t peeking out of a pocket on the front of Aldridge’s bright red Red Cross vest, she was relaxing at the Disaster Services Technology desk, where Aldridge – an 18-year disaster responder from Lowell, Ind. – helped keep the response communications and computer networks operating.

Oso was born in Manitoba, Canada, lime green polyester fur with yellow felt paws and face. She joined Aldridge in 2014 as he finished a challenging assignment in Oso, Washington. “I had always been goofy in the Red Cross,” Aldridge admitted, so when a fellow Red Crosser handed him the long-limbed monkey, he took her on as his traveling companion.

Oso thrives on a high-octane disaster diet: “She loves Nutter Butters,” Aldridge said with a grin. And she’s been spotted hugging a cup of lukewarm Red Cross coffee.

Aldridge is pleased that his buddy’s never-failing smile lifts the spirits of disaster victims and Red Cross responders alike. She has followers across the country on an on-line Red Cross users group. “Oso, where are you, you little squirt,” a fan asked recently.

Now, Oso and Aldridge can add preparedness for the 2016 RNC to their joint Red Cross resume.