Disaster Mental Health Supports Red Cross Workers Too

Imagine that you’ve just returned home after being deployed to the American Red Cross Hurricane Sandy disaster relief operation. You worked twelve-hour days for three weeks helping Sandy survivors rebuild their lives. You’re a Red Cross disaster relief worker–most likely you’re a volunteer. You’re exhausted. You’ve seen a lot. Your experiences range from the devastating to the inspiring. You could use a little emotional support, but you’re not sure how or who to ask for it.

Sandi Lindgren was deployed to the American Red Cross tornado disaster relief operation in Joplin, Missouri, May 2011. Photo provided courtesy of Sandi.

The next thing you know, you receive a call from a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer who’s checking in to see how you’re doing and to assist you in dealing with stress and high impact experiences. The volunteer listens to you, offers support and lets you know that you’re not alone. Sandi Lindgren could be the person who calls.

“Disaster deployments are a special kind of response that I believe calls for increased attention,” Sandi says. “When you return home friends and family usually want to know some of what you’ve experienced, but often they don’t want to know as much as you want to tell.  It’s not because they don’t care – it’s because they don’t understand, and they themselves have had life continue while you were away.  Sometimes it can be helpful to process some of these experiences in a post deployment call, to get support, ideas and sometimes just have someone to listen.”

Sandi–who also deploys to disaster relief operations away from home–most often serves the Red Cross in Minnesota as part of a team of trained and licensed mental health volunteers. Together, the team has made more than one hundred post-deployment calls to Hurricane Sandy relief workers from Minnesota.

Sandi Lindgren gives–and gets–a hug during the tornado disaster relief operation in Joplin, Missouri, May 2011. Photo provided courtesy of Sandi.

Though it’s a service many people aren’t aware of, this kind of outreach can make a world of difference to those it supports. For example, one volunteer says that the the Disaster Mental Health volunteer who contacted her after her return from Hurricane Sandy “went way beyond what I could ever have expected a volunteer to do in the amount of time she devoted to [my post-deployment needs] and the caring for me and the Red Cross.”

Disaster Mental Health responders worry about the negative stigma sometimes associated with mental health and want volunteers to know that talking with someone is a normal and  healthy way to process a deployment experience. Sandi explains that “The Disaster Mental Health Team and its volunteers don’t approach you and talk to you because we secretly think you’re crazy and in need of an intervention! Sometimes, we just want to chat, or meet new people, or find out what’s going on. I like to remind people that we’re the mental HEALTH team…it’s all about how to be your best, so that you can then support others in the most effective manner.”

Thank you to all of the Disaster Mental Health team volunteers for your compassionate support of our regional volunteers. Your work is truly appreciated.

Story by Lisa Joyslin, Volunteer Resources Director, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region. Click here to learn more about Red Cross opportunities.

Taking Sandy As His First Assignment

Jim Mehle became an American Red Cross volunteer this past February. Now, only a few months into his volunteer service, Jim is on-the-ground in New York City helping with the ongoing disaster relief response following Hurricane Sandy.

“I had no idea that my first assignment would be responding to one of the biggest storms to hit the United States in recent months,” says Jim.

Red Cross disaster response volunteer Jim Mehle. (File photo)
Red Cross disaster response volunteer Jim Mehle.

After retiring in 2012 from his job as a psychiatric social worker in a minimum-security prison, Jim heard about volunteering with the American Red Cross through word of mouth and decided he’d give it a shot.

Since arriving in New York City, Jim’s been busy. Mostly he’s worked with one of several American Red Cross call centers serving as hubs for communication. Call centers gather damage information in specific geographic areas, record the number of calls centers receive each day and manage casework data entry for individual Red Cross clients. The call center provides Jim with his daily client list. Each day he works with 4 clients who’ve reached out to the Red Cross call center for help. Jim meets them in their neighborhoods where he sees the damage first hand.

“I’ve been on the road a lot. I’ve seen the damage. Some homes and businesses are beyond repair. The worst are closest to the coast.”

Among those Jim visited was a 61-year old man whose home of 40 years was destroyed on Staten Island. Currently, he’s staying with his son. He hopes to rebuild his home, but starting over after 40 years will likely be a difficult task.

“Your heart just goes out to these people,” says Jim.

Story by Hayes Kaufman/American Red Cross. Click here for more about Red Cross helping Sandy survivors.

Gift of A Lifetime

During the holiday season there is much to be thankful for as we gather with loved ones, participate in traditions and winter festivities, and search for the perfect gifts to give to family and friends. However, there are some gifts that are less tangible than others. Tacy Fleener from Alexandria, Minnesota, describes her recent deployment to the Red Cross disaster relief response to Superstorm Sandy in New York City, and the special “gift of a lifetime” she received.

Red Cross disaster relief volunteer worker Tacy Fleener. (File photo: American Red Cross)

Tacy has been with the Red Cross for 30 years as the first national responder out of Douglas County. She started at 16 years old, teaching swimming lessons and CPR training. Later on, with the help of her husband, she got the local Red Cross chapter in Alexandria up and running with different classes and opportunities of involvement for local community members. Her heart is most passionate about disaster relief and being of use during times of great need.

During past deployments, Tacy  specialized in mass care shelter management and hands-on experience. However, this deployment was a different involvement; one that was also very intense but rewarding. Tacy’s job was behind the scenes to guide volunteers through the deployment process. She would enter these volunteers into data bases and designate hotel rooms to keep track of individuals during their deployment.

Tacy expertly handled stress the minute she arrived on site, “Things were chaotic when I got there, my job was to try to keep the peace with the hotels we had under contract. I played detective to try to spend Red Cross’ money the right way, while making sure that volunteers were where they needed to be, with places to stay.”

“Just to see the need I had been hearing about with individual faces and stories kept me motivated throughout my deployment. It was easy to see that the distribution process was very difficult. People on the distribution team were bringing supplies to outskirt areas, such as Stanton Island where 12,000 people are still without power.” She remembers that distribution volunteers are overwhelmed with the need. One story that impacted her life was one gentleman leading a distribution team. She recalls, “He had just got back from Staten Island where he had been sleeping on pallets for two weeks. He looked like death warmed over and I thought to myself, oh wow, we need to find a hotel for this guy so he can rest and get cleaned up.”

Josh Holper card
A “thank you” from Josh Holper and his friends to the Red Cross. (Photo credit: Sue Gonsior/American Red Cross)

Though rooms were in a shortage in Stanton Island during this time, various New York hotels were gracious and gave American Red Cross a block of discounted rooms. This is an example of a reoccurring theme of camaraderie and teamwork throughout the east coast disaster relief. Even with support and understanding, every day was mentally and emotionally stressful. “We spent 12-14 hours a day keeping track of hotels to try to save the Red Cross as much money as possible,” says Tacy. “Every volunteer constantly gave it their all and was very supportive. Thanksgiving was especially a wonderful time to be volunteering; we had the opportunity to make sure that people had a Thanksgiving dinner. Citizens were very appreciative and it was neat to spend Thanksgiving by giving back to this community. To hear someone say ‘thank you’ was wonderfully rewarding.”

Volunteering during this disaster is a constant 24/7 job, without many breaks, yet Tacy says she would do it again in a heartbeat. “I love the Red Cross, the volunteers, the people I meet. Everyone that is there wants to make a difference. Even when you had been working 12-14 hours a day, you just go and give a big hug to each other and say thank you.”

Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf , Ed Newman (c) and Sue Buelow, in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.
Helping others & making friends: Red Cross volunteers (l-r) Lizzie Kampf, Ed Newman and Sue Buelow in New York City for Superstorm Sandy.

Thank you’s and appreciation can go a long way. The American Red Cross Northern Minnesota would like to extend its gratitude to Tacy and more than 100 relief workers who have donated, volunteered or been involved with the Red Cross mission to reduce human suffering during the Sandy disaster response on the east coast.

Tacy hopes her experience encourages others to volunteer. “Just to meet one person who says thank you brightens my whole day. It really helps me when I come back home to Minnesota; to appreciate what I have; to appreciate helping others in a time of need. It fills my heart to be able to give back by doing something truly important. I know my whole heart is into it when I’m there. I know the other volunteers feel the same way, young and old. I recommend that anyone become a Red Cross volunteer–it’s an experience of a lifetime. Make the time, take some classes and experience the opportunity to give back to others, because you never know when you will need it yourself. Some of the friends you meet will touch your heart for a lifetime.”

Click here to find out more about how you can help with Superstorm Sandy relief this holiday season and give the gift of a lifetime.

Story by Megan Barnes/American Red Cross

Remembering Sandy: “Minnesota, I got your back”

Red Cross responder Sue Buelow is back from New Jersey where she helped with Superstorm Sandy disaster relief efforts. Below, Sue looks back.

The very beginning was a lot of trying to figure out the response system and getting used to hurry up and wait. But soon after arriving I was assigned to supervising special field teams doing “seek and serve” emotional support and traveling to Moonachie, Newark, Jersey City, Toms River and nearby damaged communities.

Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.
Sue Buelow (l) and Lizzie Kampf (r) while responding to Superstorm Sandy disaster relief in New Jersey.

I learned a few things along the way: 1) speed limit signs are a suggestion, 2) many cities are not on a map, 3) there are few places that allow left turns, 4) be thankful for clean clothes; and 5) they love Minnesotan accents there!

The work was hard emotionally and physically. My first partner had to return home to California for health reasons. Then, for the next 12 days I had the pleasure of partnering with Lizzie Kampf, a new “just-in-time”  disaster mental health responder who was also from the Twin Cities. It felt like we’d known each other a lifetime. I was sad to see Lizzie leave before I finished my final week there. I didn’t know what I’d do without her driving the truck — she took on the persona of a New York cab driver quite naturally.

Lizzie and I went to New Jersey’s upper Barrier Island as the residents returned to see their homes, or absence of, for the first time. The devastation to the townships there was beyond words. The water and sand was 4-5 feet deep and the waves were up to 12 feet high.  The stories of the emergency medical services (EMS) workers and residents who rode out the storm there were frightening. We bonded with these communities and it was not unusual to hear “Hey,  Minnesota….” My last contact with one of the EMS workers that had been struggling was “Minnesota, I got your back.”

Being there when the residents saw their condemned or empty lot of debris was indescribable as they collapsed into my arms, sobbing and needing a “Minnesota hug.” We helped look for mementos in the debris, from small things to stones of a child’s hand and foot prints. We were there for those in shock who couldn’t think to pack up some clothes. Listening to them tell their stories and showing us their homes or pictures was moving.

I certainly have received a great gift from the same people: I believe I have helped them. I am blessed to have had a small part of their lives and in their recovery from this disaster. I will always remember my time spent there.

Sue returned home a few days ago. She is among more than 100 Red Cross disaster relief workers (mostly volunteers) from Minnesota who have responded to Sandy.

Staffing Red Cross Disaster Response

Red Cross volunteer Kris Posey (right) helps get other volunteers, including Lori Olsson (left), quickly and safely out the door for disaster response.

Question: Who are those people working tirelessly to get Red Cross relief workers deployed to disaster locations, such as Superstorm Sandy? Answer: They’re Emergency Services Staffing volunteers!

In the case of our American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region, we’re  talking about volunteers Kris Posey, Susan Waananen & Cari McCollor. Although they’re often not working on the ground in affected disaster areas, they’re working hard to get those who are responding in the field out the door quickly and safely.

Emergency Services volunteers work behind the scenes 24/7 when disaster occurs. They’re in the Red Cross offices on weekends monitoring email, helping arrange training and processing volunteers. They’ve been doing this nearly every day since before Superstorm Sandy made landfall on the East Coast. Every day, they return calls and answer emails that come in from our 700+ volunteers across our Red Cross region.

Hey, Cari, we like that henna tattoo!

In addition, we’ve had staff services volunteers in the office these past few weeks learning all there is to know about national deployment.  Thank you Steve, Marcia, Lois, Bonnie, Barb, Jan & John. We’re building great capacity throughout our region.

Thank you to Emergency Services staffing volunteers. You help make our mission happen. And we love you for it!

P.S. Emergency Services staffing volunteers also deploy to disasters. Cari (pictured) is now on the East Coast working as part of the Red Cross field response to Superstorm Sandy. Return home happy and safe!

P.P.S. Question: Do you want to join our team? Answer: Yes, I do. I really really do 🙂


Field Photos: Sheldon Checks In From Sandy

Red Cross volunteers Sheldon Bruce and Lori Olsson deployed to Superstorm Sandy days ago–how many? (Too many to remember.) They drove a Red Cross emergency response truck 1,200 miles from Minnesota to New York and since then they’ve been busy handing out hot meals and relief supplies to people in devastated areas. We’re grateful for the work that Sheldon and Lori are doing. Here, through Sheldon’s eyes, we share with you a bit of what they’re experiencing.

A street after flood waters receded.
Families wait for meals and supplies from a Red Cross disaster relief truck.
Red Cross disaster relief workers at their temporary home-sweet-home accommodations.
Red Cross trucks waiting to refuel.
Beach front damage.
Clean out after the flood.
Loading Papa John’s.
Delivering clean up kits in affected neighborhoods.

Stop Over And Make Someone Smile

Special Post From Red Cross Disaster Volunteer Dun Bui

Dun Bui (far right) and other Red Cross disaster responders at the shelter in Oceanport, New Jersey.

Red Cross volunteers from Kentucky, Ohio, New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin are working together at the shelter at Maple Place School in Oceanport, New Jersey.

Over 600 people have checked into the Red Cross shelter established at Maple Place School in Oceanport over the past 48 hours. Many have come in for a hot meal, chance to charge some electronic devices, file a claim with FEMA or just talk with a friendly volunteer.

A majority of the Red Cross volunteers are not even from this area or state. A husband and wife drove from Kentucky, one woman came in from Ohio, another from up-state New York while two others are from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Volunteers are needed at the shelter to assist with serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also people are needed to help watch and supervise children and play games with senior citizens. The shelter is open 24 hours. And if you can spare an hour or so, stop over and make someone smile.

Thank you to Dun Bui and the other 5,400 Red Cross volunteers responding to the Superstorm Sandy disaster on the East Coast. Take care and return home safe and happy.

And The Heroes Are Off

We have in our Red Cross region fabulous people who leave behind their lives and loved  ones for days and days to help others in great need. Right now, twenty-five disaster relief workers from our Northern Minnesota region are responding to Superstorm Sandy. Twenty-two of those are volunteers. We’re incredibly grateful to have outstanding responders. We know that they’re doing great work. And, the heroes are off…

Sheldon Bruce, who will be gone for three weeks, says goodbye to his wife.

Lori Olsson brings snacks and cereal for the long drive ahead on a
Red Cross emergency response truck.

Steve Baltes (r) helps Jeff Skoog (l) and Diane Hofacker (c) map their deployment  destinations where they will provide Mass Care and Sheltering assistance.

Open shelters according to the Red Cross Hurricane App.

Disaster Mental Health volunteer Larry Larson (r) gets important deployment information from Emergency Staffing Manager Theresa Moerbitz.

Sheldon Bruce is ready to roll.

Lori Olsson waves goodbye.

To support American Red Cross disaster relief visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Your gift enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, emotional support and other assistance to those affected. (Story by Lynette Nyman and Megan Barnes; photos by Megan Barnes/American Red Cross)

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