Red Cross volunteer helps hundreds, deepens purpose while supporting COVID-19 condolence call center

On a Monday in late January, the American Red Cross virtual condolence care center for people grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19 did not stop getting calls. In fact, the center was bombarded with around 25 calls taken by two volunteers, including Rose Olmsted.

“The people who are calling us don’t have a support system,” says Rose, a Disaster Mental Health volunteer who took calls that day from her home in Albert Lea, Minnesota.

The calls come mostly from diverse communities, especially in Texas, California and other states hard hit with COVID deaths. Some have buried two or three family members, while others have had four or even five loved ones sick from the disease.

Established by the Red Cross in 2020 as the pandemic settled in, the Virtual Family Assistance Center (VFAC) provides free emotional, health and spiritual guidance to those most in need. It’s also a source for referrals to other coronavirus assistance.

Rose Olmsted. Submitted photo.

Rose has served as a disaster mental health volunteer since 2009. For this role, she was vetted, and then had an additional two-weeks of orientation. During her shifts, she has a supervisor and manager available to consult with. Since going active with the call center last fall, Rose has spoken to hundreds of people.

“I want to take these calls from the disadvantaged. They are my kind of people, the poor, minorities, people disadvantaged by income, access to technology, access to transportation, limited health care or chronic health conditions.”

Rose spends most of her time listening. People are in a state of grief and incredible anxiety. Some are especially stressed because loved ones died without them at hospitals or suddenly at home. Rose listens without interruption.

At the end of one call Rose remembers a woman, after sharing a deeply personal story of tragic, long-term loss and grief, experienced simple peace and gratitude just because someone, in this case a volunteer named Rose, listened to her story.  

Image from Red Cross condolence card.

Listening can take a toll, even on experienced and trained professionals like Rose. Her regular social activities are limited because of the pandemic so she’s turned to live, online concerts, daily meditation and intentional connecting with friends.  

“People ask, why do you want to keep doing this? If you have to ask me, then…”  Her voice trails off. The work continues to bring Rose great purpose even while the calls get harder and the pandemic’s impact deepens in communities across the country.

Access the American Red Cross Virtual Family Assistance Center. People without internet access can call 833-492-0094 for help between 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday - Friday local time to speak with a trained Red Cross volunteer in English or Spanish. Callers in immediate crisis should call 911 or a hotline like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Callers also can find crisis support through the national Disaster Distress Helpline.   
Help and support are available for people from any state, county, territory or tribal nation. Frontline responders, such as healthcare workers, workers at long-term care facilities, and other essential personnel dealing with families of COVID-19 patients, are welcome to call as well for free individual and group support.
Download the American Red Cross Guidebook for Grieving Families. Download Resources for Community Leaders. 

Story by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

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