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The emotional side of a Red Cross deployment

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I realized that I knew nothing really about what the clients in Chico might be going through.

Derek Masuda is a California AmeriCorps Disaster Team (CADT) member who supports the American Red Cross's Northern California Coastal Region. Working in communications and marketing and based in San Jose, he deployed as a shelter worker during the Oroville Dam emergency this past winter. Following his deployment, Masuda wrote this first-person account of the experience.

By Derek Masuda

When we encounter disaster, it seems natural to take stock of the physical tasks Red Cross workers perform in our almost tireless effort to help. Because we are a large organization with a need to be accountable to the donors who support us so generously, we regularly tally up that assistance: the number of meals served, the number of people sheltered, the quantity of personal-hygiene kits that are dispersed.

While there's no denying that hot meals, a warm place to sleep, and the means to get clean laundry are all things that can lift a person’s spirit in the face of extreme circumstances, the emotional devastation that disasters can have on people remains much harder for relief workers to quantify.

Because of that, it's easy for the workers to overlook the labor that they themselves are expending just to sustain the mental wellbeing of those affected.

That was true for me this past February when I deployed as a shelter worker in support of people displaced by the Oroville Dam emergency evacuation. After traveling to Chico, I knew that I would be helping provide the physical things — food, shelter, and water — that would go a long way toward getting people back to a sense of normalcy. However, what surprised me was our clients' need for emotional support.

Shelter residents are under enormous pressure. In the case of the Oroville evacuation, they had been forced to flee their homes with little notice and no knowledge of when — or if — they would be able to safely return.

For the benefit of everyone, the Red Cross' shelter workers have an interest in keeping things on an even keel. At times in Chico, this meant that we had to do everything we could to prevent people from getting on each other’s nerves — even if it meant swallowing our pride or being inconvenienced ourselves.

When I was studying communication at San Jose State, I participated in a service-learning class that required us to log 48 hours of service at a local nonprofit. I would often work in the food pantry at Sacred Heart Community Service nearby, helping to distribute pre-made food kits and other groceries. I was initially surprised by the way that some of the clients treated volunteers like me. The people using the food pantry’s services could be rude, and I didn’t understand why the relatively few discourteous users of the service couldn’t extend a modicum of courtesy.

Some of that same behavior was evident during my Oroville Dam deployment. A man complained because there was no coffee creamer. Others lamented the lack of designated shelter space for smokers. I couldn’t help but feel that a few of the shelter residents were exhibiting a sense of entitlement.

But because of my earlier experience at Sacred Heart, I quickly realized that I knew nothing really about what the clients in Chico might be going through or what their current circumstances might feel like. It simply wasn’t important that they extend me every courtesy I may have thought I deserved. The important thing was that I was there to help them.

The Sacred Heart experience also taught me not to let the negative actions of a few disaster clients affect me personally. In fact, because of that earlier experience, I wanted to make myself more available to people inside the Chico shelters who felt the need to open up. In one memorable instance, a woman named Louise struck up a conversation with me, and I ended up just sitting and chatting with her for over an hour. The next day, I happened to see her again, and we talked some about various books and films she recommended and where she had lived before settling in the Oroville area. I didn’t see her again after that and assume she returned to her home.

What my interaction with Louise underscored was the need that some clients have to engage in a normal manner after experiencing a disaster. Nothing can change the fact that the clients are living in a shelter, but treating them with respect and courtesy — and sometimes just listening — is preferable to treating them like victims.

People who the Red Cross helps during times of disaster have often just been dealt a difficult hand. It's critically important that Red Cross workers — like I was during the Oroville Dam deployment — give them all of the help we can muster without judging their reaction. And I'm proud to say that Red Cross workers do just that.