By Bernadette Casey, American Red Cross in Greater NY
Dottie Brier’s role as a mental health volunteer at the New York chapter of the American Red Cross may have kicked off in the summer of 1992, but her first experience with the organization dates back much further. During World War II Brier knit squares that would be used to create blankets for soldiers fighting in Europe.
To this day she still remembers feeling like she was doing a valuable and important job - something that she feels is a crucial aspect of the volunteer experience.
Brier, who grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and has lived in Manhattan since 1953, says that many of the Red Cross values were very strong in her family. Her father was the president of many philanthropic organizations including a children’s orphanage.
“It was really just my family value to be concerned about other people and philanthropy was an important part of my background,” she said.
Determined to have a career, she went to Radcliffe as an undergraduate and got her master’s in social work from Smith College.
She then embarked on a long and fulfilling career working in the field of mental health. In her first job out of school she worked at a family services agency called the Community Service Society. She followed that up by working at a nonprofit school for severely disturbed children and a youth consultation agency for adolescent and young adult girls. She then returned to Community Service Society in a teaching role for two years.
Next, she landed a job at Lenox Hill Hospital as a supervisor and within a year was promoted to assistant director of social work responsible for quality assurance, programming and education. Brier stayed at Lenox Hill for about 20 years before retiring.
“I always had a lot of compassion for people in difficult situations no matter what the situations were, whether because of mental illness or poverty or disaster. I had a strong wish to have them be in better conditions. I found it very, very gratifying.”
Within a few months of retiring in 1991 she found herself missing social work and working with clients and it was then she joined the Red Cross. After a few weeks, she was sent to Florida to help families impacted by Hurricane Andrew which left more than 175,000 people homeless. She was deployed as part of a program recently formed by the American Red Cross at the national level, Disaster Mental Health.
In 1995, Brier was asked by the head of Disaster Services at the Greater NY Chapter of the Red Cross to assist in standing up a similar mental health program locally. Its goal was to provide
specialized emotional support after a devastating event. That help comes in a variety of forms including fostering a positive culture in a shelter or other service site, listening to someone who needs to talk or identifying early signs of stress in someone who has experienced a disaster. TWA Flight 800, which crashed off the coast of Long Island, was the first big disaster after setting up the program in 1996.
For most of her long and committed Red Cross career, Brier has provided emotional support at the front lines of countless national and regional disasters as well as some of the most high-profile emergencies of the past three decades: incidents including the Oklahoma City bombing; Egypt Air Flight 990 which crashed off the Massachusetts coast in 1999; the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001; and Superstorm Sandy.
Brier’s involvement with US Airways Flight 1549, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” led to her first moment in the Hollywood spotlight. In the resulting movie, Sully, which was directed by Clint Eastwood and featured Tom Hanks as Captain Sullenberger, Dottie was an extra, handing out blankets and offering comfort to passengers, just as Red Cross volunteers had done on the cold January afternoon in 2009.
Brier, a pioneer in the field of disaster mental health, believes that developing such a program for the Red Cross has been critically important for the organization’s ability to help in disasters.
“It’s made a tremendous impact. We did a great deal of work educating people about mental health aspects and why they were important,” she adds.
After 9/11 Brier taught a psychological first aid course so Red Cross staff and volunteers could help with direct mental health interventions and referrals to Red Cross professionals as needed. She believes that 9/11 made a big difference in the country when it came to recognizing and understanding grief and mental health issues.
“The Red Cross was a leader in seeing disaster-related emotional reactions not from a pathology perspective, but as common reactions to abnormal situations and also in recognizing that resilience is enhanced when people have support at the time of disaster, lessening the chance of developing long-term psychological problems,” said Brier.
She stressed that each person responds in their own way to a disaster. Feelings of loss and vulnerability are common, but Brier says it’s the loss of a sense of control that upsets most people.
Carrying out this type of work, in such emotionally-charged contexts, can be trying. Brier takes care of her own mental health by employing relaxation methods including yoga and walking and having other interests such as being a guide at the American Museum of Natural History. Brier knows she can also speak to a fellow Red Cross mental health volunteer.
“I love the mission of the Red Cross. They really do what needs to be done for people. They are warm and compassionate and meet people’s physical, practical and emotional needs. I feel this is
the kind of work I went into social work to do,” said Brier.
“Another thing I am grateful for are the friendships with the workforce. It is so enriching to meet people from all different backgrounds.” She adds that even though there is such diversity in age and background, the volunteers she works with all share the common bond of wanting to help people affected by disasters.
Brier recently gave up her regional program lead and NYC chapter coordinator positions at the Red Cross, but will remain involved in the organization she loves so much as a senior disaster mental health advisor.
“It’s the best job I ever had except I don’t get paid,” she jokes.