By Christina Kantzavelos, American Red Cross volunteer
Most people know that the American Red Cross responds to international disasters. But did you know that the Red Cross also responds to local and domestic disasters? Whether it’s a house fire down the street, a California wildfire, or a flood in Louisiana, the Red Cross is there to provide immediate services to those affected by disasters.
Another little-known fact? Volunteers carry out 90 percent of the humanitarian work of the Red Cross.
Volunteers come from all walks of life. Many are working professionals with a wide breadth of experience. Some of those volunteers are Red Cross Disaster Mental Health (DMH) volunteers, a group comprised of trained, licensed mental health professionals. These DMH volunteers work in a variety of capacities, most often working with people affected by devastating disasters. In these cases, DMH volunteers provide a compassionate, listening ear - something that many people need in times of crises. DMH volunteers also provide coping and recovery tips for people on what’s often the worst day of their lives.
DMH volunteers can also work with Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF), which provides emergency communications, workshops and more for service members, veterans and their families. Within SAF, licensed mental health professionals can train to volunteer in hosting and facilitating Reconnection Workshops for service members and their families all over the United States. In joining the American Red Cross chapter of San Diego and Imperial Counties, I had the pleasure of being trained to become both a Disaster Mental Health (DMH) and SAF volunteer.
How does one join, and what does training look like? It’s easy! Just visit redcross.org/volunteer to apply. It is straightforward from there, and upon completion, a chapter volunteer coordinator will contact you to set up additional training. If you decide to proceed from there and become a SAF volunteer, you can speak to a SAF representative at your local chapter who can get you started.
But what does volunteering actually look like? Well, it will look different for each and every disaster, as location, context, and staff will vary. Volunteering can include following-up on a family who just lost their house to a fire, virtually (telephonically) checking in with a family who lost their home to a tornado, or conducting a SAF workshop at a military base. It could also mean deploying, depending on what your availability looks like. Just keep in mind that you will not be providing actual therapy, and that being both flexibility and patience is imperative.
For me, it was when the floods hit Louisiana in August that I knew wanted to deploy nationally as a volunteer, since the need was quite high and my schedule permitted it. I was approved to volunteer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was e-mailed information on the disaster, travel information and more. I was then instructed to meet with a DMH representative from my local chapter in order to be briefed on the disaster. Mind you, shelter and transportation are included when you deploy as a volunteer.
Once I arrived at headquarters in Baton Rouge, I was introduced to my wonderful direct supervisor, who walked me through registration, including turning in my rental car, obtaining information on my hotel, who my roommate would be and more. After registration, I was taken to the last operating shelter to meet the DMH team (including one of our very own San Diego locals!), tour the shelter, and receive briefing and training. At around 7:00 p.m., it was time for staff shift-change. As you can imagine, it had been a long day, and I was both famished and exhausted. After eating dinner and getting to know each team member a little better, it was time for bed. I was appreciative of this, as I knew I would be needing a good night’s sleep.
There are usually morning meetings held every day at headquarters, so each team can provide updates on the disaster. In the evening, we also receive e-mail updates, which are quite helpful, especially since team members can contribute as well.
Our days at the shelter included talking to clients at the disaster, and working with FEMA and other local organizations to ensure all needs were being met. Generally, needs are greater as a shelter is closing, since another change may be the last thing some of these clients want to face. In offering our emotional support and motivation, along with help of the organizations we were working with, we successfully facilitated smooth transitions into both temporary and permanent housing.
Our booth at the shelter sat between health services and another local organization. It was rare to have clients come directly to us, so we would generally introduce ourselves to them first and ask if they needed anything. Neither our badges nor our vests mention anything regarding mental health. Sometimes the label of “mental health volunteer” can hinder building trust with clients. Although there is no actual documenting, we do notate and report how many clients and employees/volunteers we serve. For example, I had an employee from a partner organization who thought he was having symptoms of anxiety come to our booth and ask for assistance. Levels of need will always vary. And if something doesn’t feel comfortable, you always have your supervisor and chain of command to consult with.
After the shelter closed, we were able to tag along with the American Red Cross DAT (Disaster Action Team) in the field, and help with their efforts of both assessing damage from the flood and offering mental health resources, when appropriate. When we weren't in the field, were able to do virtual case work, meaning that we called to follow up on those who requested services, or may need mental health resources. While in Baton Rouge, our one disaster turned into two when there was a local apartment complex fire that caused severe damage to multiple units, and housed some victims who had just relocated there after very recently losing their housing to the flood. As a team, we responded to the fire, and provided emotional support and resources. Days after the fire, I followed up with each tenant who was impacted by the fire to ensure resources needs were met. Last but not least, supervisors hold the 24/7 emergency phone for anyone who needs mental health resources throughout a disaster.
I recall my supervisor mentioning her least favorite part of deployment was saying her goodbyes, and I quickly realized why. Our volunteers are some amazing people, and it's sad to part ways after working so closely together. Upon processing out, I drove back to New Orleans with a lovely volunteer from New Orleans himself, who even gave me some history and interesting information on the city and state en route back.
All in all, I enjoyed my deployment. Our team was comprised of all professional and skillful women, who I learned a lot from. Some even went on to deploy and assist with Hurricane Matthew. My recommendations are to be patient, to be flexible, to be open-minded, to ask questions, to always use the chain of command, to drink lots of water (it’s unlimited…so no excuses!), and if you have any food allergies, like I do, to pack yourself some snacks to have on hand in case there aren’t any that meet your needs at the shelter.
I hope that this helps illustrate the process of becoming a Disaster Mental Health volunteer with the American Red Cross, and what volunteering as one may look like. If you are interested and able to volunteer, know that your skills are both needed and much appreciated as a volunteer.
As always, Buen Camino!