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Why I Volunteer: Disaster Mental Health

Christine Williams, Volunteer
I didn’t hear back from the coordinator, but this time I didn’t forget

A colleague of mine, another therapist, always talks to clients about “shipwreck experiences”: those moments of tragedy where we are pushed to our limits, but learn something about ourselves and are moved to grow. That is more than a feel-good saying or a pop-psychology mantra. In fact, it is at the core of the theory of post-traumatic growth, a counterpart to the idea of post-traumatic stress, and something that is been found to happen more commonly than previously believed.

But how do people grow when everything around them seems to be lost? There are many pieces to that puzzle, but one of them is the support of the community. It is that support, which the Red Cross gives, and that Disaster Relief volunteers are trained to provide. These are the community responders you see on the news during times of tragedy. Perhaps they are setting up cots in gymnasiums, or preparing meals out of a truck. They are also the ones at the home fire in the middle of the night, handing out blankets and water.

My own background is in providing mental health services. As a psychologist I work every day with people who have experienced loss, usually months and years after the fact. When I was in graduate school, a professor of mine spoke to our class about the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health (DMH) services. This was in the years immediately following 9/11, and there were many stories of psychologists, social workers and mental health counselors who had worked ground zero.

A key point, he said, was that we would unfortunately have to wait to volunteer until we were licensed and could practice independently. So I finished my clinical training, graduated, completed more coursework and training to get licensed, and in the process, forgot about it all.

On April 15, 2013, I arrived home just after 3 p.m. from volunteering at Mile 13 of the Boston Marathon. That morning I had shared my excitement of volunteering during the marathon via social media, and posted my close-up shots of the course. Once home I received a text I didn’t understand. A friend asked me about the explosions. Throughout the next hour I had people trying to text and Facebook me about where I was and if I was ok. I, myself, was trying to keep my cool as I texted the family of friends who were supposed to be crossing the finish line. I am still grateful that all of my friends and their families were safe, but it was a long, few hours. A mini-shipwreck experience, if you will.

The next day I looked into the Red Cross DMH training. Things were chaotic, and I didn’t hear back from the coordinator. It got set aside as I dealt with clients already in my practice who were affected by the bombing. But this time I didn’t forget, and finally I made the time to apply. 

When I was ready, the process was actually quite easy – go through your local Red Cross website (www.redcross.org/neo), you can walk through the process of signing up. My trainings were mostly online, and volunteer coordinators helped me along the way. I will do my last training soon, and then start attending update meetings as the year goes on. I will give my schedule of when I can volunteer for common incidents (like house fires) and be on call for larger incidents.

Through the trainings I learned more about the Red Cross and its mission, the role of Disaster Relief, and the specifics of being a DMH volunteer. The coolest thing I learned? That there are people (mostly retirees) who are called DOVEs (Disaster Operations Volunteer Escapees) who travel the United States in RVs, and wait to be called upon to travel to disaster sites. My husband is not yet aware that I am going to push for this in our retirement. Please don’t ruin the surprise! 

Tags: Volunteers.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or cruzrojaamericana.org, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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