Tory Fiedler recounts her experience on a wildfire response near San Diego that left a profound impression. She found a house that was completely gone except for a mailbox by the side of the road. On the mailbox was a sign—crayon on cardboard and clearly the work of a child. It read: “Dear God, why did you let the fire burn my home? Now we have nowhere to live.”
A Red Cross disaster mental health manager, Fiedler was profoundly moved and left a teddy bear at the mailbox along with Red Cross recovery information.
About a week later the community held a picnic for those people who had come to help them. “I met a man whose 9-year-old daughter had found a teddy bear at her mailbox. He had read the information – and he told me was the first time he felt that recovery was possible. That’s Red Cross – that’s what we do,” Fiedler said.
When disasters hit, the impact is felt far and wide – property is damaged, people are displaced, and lives are upended. But one of the greatest impacts of a disaster is often unseen: the effect on people's emotional health and mental wellbeing.
“Everyone who goes through a disaster experiences some level of stress, grief, fear and loss,” says Fiedler, who is back on the front lines of wildfire disaster response in central and eastern Washington. “Our goal is to help people move toward recovery – and essential to moving toward recovery is to begin addressing and coping with the intense stress as quickly as possible.”
The American Red Cross disaster mental health team members are masters-level professionals, including psychologists, social workers, and counselors, licensed to the highest level in their state, with additional training specifically in disaster mental health. The team is available to help people deal with the intensity of the disaster and help connect them with additional resources within their community.
“We also help people organize themselves – in great distress it’s hard to get organized, hard to know what to do next,” Fiedler said. “We help people prioritize and give them perspective so they begin to recover.”
“All Red Cross volunteers and staff provide a compassionate presence. Of course, we provide for their immediate needs such as shelter, food, water… But perhaps more importantly for their long-term wellbeing, we provide information and hope.”
As a 15-year veteran of the Red Cross, Fiedler has responded to disasters around the country including Hurricane Katrina, tornadoes in Alabama, floods in Oklahoma, and last-year’s landslide near Oso, WA. She has seen a lot and helped countless people over the years and she acknowledges that there is always a story you can't forget.
If you or someone you know needs emotional support, the Red Cross urges you to call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990. The Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline that provides 24/7, year-round crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. More information here and on Twitter: @Distressline