By: Randi Badgett, LSW, ACSW, and Ann Tapman, LSW
Summer 1997, Vol. 4, No. 3
Volunteering for the American Red Cross-A First Experience
by Randi Badgett, LSW, ACSW, and Ann Tapman, LSW
News broadcasters were relaying how hard the floods of ’97 were affecting people along the Ohio River. As we discussed our desire to help people in need, we were concerned about going out of state when we did not have local experience working with a disaster. Encouragement came from many sources, including our local Red Cross Manager of Emergency Social Services, Perry Ligon, who believed we were ready to meet the challenge. We had met the training requirements, including Introduction to Red Cross, Disaster Services, First Aid and Safety, CPR, and Disaster Mental Health Services. We also had the credentials (a professional license in a human services field) required to do mental health disaster services. Our licenses in social work enabled us to function as disaster mental health volunteer workers for the Red Cross. We approached our executive director at Early Intervention Programs, Inc., Kay Hock, about supporting our efforts. She was in agreement that the time for us to go on our first disaster, as a team, was now. Family support was essential and our families picked up the pieces as we were getting ready to leave. Family, staff, and community support continued from the moment we began discussing our plans.
As the adrenaline was flowing, we arrived in Louisville, KY, for our assignment. Our first lesson was learning to hurry up and wait, which became an ongoing theme of our stay. Because we believe in the team approach, we were assigned together in Cynthianna, KY. Lodging and a rental car were provided by the Red Cross, which was about 20 minutes away in Georgetown. The various locations we worked included the shelter (in a school gym), the family service center (in a local church), and the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV), which was based at the Elks Club.
The mental health techniques we used included crisis intervention, supportive counseling, finding community resources, defusing, and debriefing. We used these techniques both individually and as a team. Having a sense of humor enabled us to function at a high level of energy all of our waking hours. As a team, we debriefed each other every day, increasing our effectiveness.
Red Cross mental health volunteers have the responsibility of working with other Red Cross volunteers. Red Cross emphasizes taking care of yourself first, in order to be able to help others effectively. As mental health volunteers, we had the responsibility to remind other volunteers to keep themselves healthy both mentally and physically. Red Cross provides staff with breaks, days off, meals, lodging, and daily living expenditures. Working in a disaster takes its toll on all volunteers, as they see devastation hitting real people and their surroundings. Mental health teams allow volunteers the opportunity to ventilate and discuss their experiences. All volunteers are encouraged to be debriefed by mental health workers before departing from their assignments.
When working with disaster survivors, we found that the ages ranged from infancy to elderly, as disaster affects everyone in the community. We provided services to young children who lost all their toys. They were provided with crayons, “After the Flood” coloring books, stuffed toys donated by children, and stickers. While distributing these items, we saw the look of delight on the children' faces. This made the trip worthwhile. The children immediately smiled, as they grabbed and hugged the toys. Parents were supported in their efforts to help deal with their children' issues of loss and grief. When we told parents that behaviors such as bed wetting, fears, and insomnia were normal reactions to having experienced the flood, they were relieved. We told them to be watchful of these types of behaviors. Parents were also advised that if these behaviors continued for a long period of time, or worsened, they should seek supportive services for their children. We provided them with local names and phone numbers for these types of services.
Adolescents who lost all their clothes and personal items needed support to address their feelings. They returned to school prior to our arrival and began relating their experiences to peers. They appreciated the support we offered. Adults who lost their homes and belongings were supported in their efforts to regain control of their lives. All adults who shed a tear were referred to the mental health team by the Red Cross caseworker.
The disaster affected the elderly, who lost their much-needed routine and familiarity, causing confusion and depression. The elderly needed to talk about their experiences with the flood, as well as their life stories. We were able to provide them with time and compassion as they discussed their experiences. If warranted, these individuals were referred back to the community social service agencies for follow-up services.
Volunteers who worked on the ERVs provided services to survivors and community service workers. Meals and cleaning supplies were given out. Information regarding locating other resources, such as clothes, food pantry, and furniture, were also offered. By providing these services, we helped people continue with their clean up efforts without having to worry about their basic needs. The ERV' responsibilities included developing routes and finding homebound survivors in need of meals and other services. These routes were maintained by the ERV workers, who developed rapport and trust with the community residents. Their services were sought out by the survivors and community workers regularly. It is our belief that mental health workers should be a part of this service, as it enables a strong supportive and outreach component.
As we left Cynthianna and returned home to Harrisburg, our energy level drained with each passing mile. Getting back with the family, job, and usual routine took some time, and we allowed ourselves that time. The team approach was once again valuable, as we were able to process our experience with each other.
In conclusion, our first experience was successful because of the team approach, a strong use of humor, perseverance, persistence, family and employer support, and the desire to help others. This experience allowed us to gain expertise in a different area of social work. The knowledge we gained will be used in our professional and personal lives. We have gained a different outlook on life and the priorities each of us chooses. When people approach us with problems, we try to think back to a gentleman we met-all his possessions were on his front lawn. His message of hope, strength, and humor carried him through this tragedy. Our hope is to carry on this message to help ourselves and others in seeing there is a brighter future. It is with much difficulty, because of time constraints, that we sit here and write this, knowing we could be in the midwest providing much needed mental health services to survivors of another disaster. We are confident that we will continue our work in disaster services with the Red Cross. We look forward to our next experience and encourage others to get involved in some form of volunteerism.
Randi Badgett, LSW, ACSW, is director of intake and student assistance at Early Intervention Program, Inc. in Harrisburg, PA. Ann Tapman, LSW, is director of outpatient services at the same agency.