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Lend a Hand
9/1/2011
Judi Schmitz
Thursday September 01, 2011
by: Judi Schmitz

Section: Inside Insight


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It’s not surprising that a school counselor would want to help others, but ever since adolescence I knew that working with individuals who had faced tragedy and hardship was something I felt compelled to do. Community service led me to where I am today, working with students and their families within the educational system. As an officer of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association (PSCA), I had learned through ASCA that school counselors would soon be able to be disaster mental health volunteers for the American Red Cross, a position that was previously reserved for licensed mental health workers only. That was all I needed to hear. At that moment I knew this would be my next venture.

At the 2009 ASCA Annual Conference in Dallas, the Red Cross offered its Foundations in Mental Health course, which is the first step to becoming a Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer. I eagerly signed up and took the course. Later that summer I contacted my local Red Cross chapter, and my husband and I became volunteers. Initially I didn’t have the time to get involved much because of work demands and serving as PSCA president. Periodically, I would get calls from the Red Cross when they needed Disaster Action Team volunteers to report to a site, typically a fire location. I felt guilty because I rarely could go on a call, but the disaster volunteer services supervisor encouraged me to stay involved.

In the spring of this year, when the southern part of the country was hit with an unprecedented number of natural disasters, I received an e-mail from my Red Cross chapter looking for volunteers to deploy to the South to help with the aftermath. I didn’t hesitate. I responded that I would be interested, although I had no idea if I could be temporarily released from my school district or if I would have my husband’s support to go. I told neither at first and waited to hear from the Red Cross. I was excited to learn that I had enough training and that mental health workers were in high demand. I completed the necessary paperwork and received encouragement from my husband.

Moving Fast
The call came on Mother’s Day. Could I leave the next morning for my deployment? I desperately wanted to go but knew, practically, that I couldn’t  leave without my school district’s approval. Since I couldn’t deploy the next day, I declined with the hope that the call would come again. On Monday morning I talked with my principal and the district human resource director and received their support. I wrote a letter to the district requesting a two-week unpaid leave of absence, and the process was set in motion. Within an hour the call came from the Red Cross and the superintendent granted my short-notice request. Not only did I receive approval, but the district offered three days of my leave to be utilized as professional development. This gesture was indicative of the value my district placed on this experience.
With airline reservations made and only 24 hours to prepare, I had to move quickly. First, I had to find backup for my school counseling responsibilities. Fortunately, I had kept to my schedule, and most of my guidance lessons were completed. I arranged for another elementary school counselor to be on call for emergencies, notified the building staff that I would be leaving and announced to the students that I would be helping families in Georgia. Then I went home to pack.

I left the next day for Atlanta, facing many unknowns, including my exact destination, my living arrangements or with whom I’d be working. All I had was a phone number to call when I arrived. Everything fell into place from there.

I joined three other volunteers at the car rental desk, and we were off to the Atlanta headquarters of the American Red Cross. We participated in a brief orientation on the tornado destruction in the state, completed paperwork, received a cell phone and a car and headed out to a small headquarters in northwest Georgia, where we lodged in a budget hotel with other Red Cross volunteers. The next day we received our assignments and began our work. I was assigned to a team that included two caseworkers and a nurse. We traveled to homes that had major damage or were destroyed. As a team we assessed their needs, made referrals, provided medical assistance and emotional support.

Most importantly, we listened.

After five days in Georgia, my assignment changed, and I headed to Birmingham, Ala. I was sent to a much larger headquarters set up in a former retail store. I was amazed at the organization of the disaster response system, which was managed and operated by well-trained volunteers. They all had their place, their specialty and their unique dedication to the Red Cross’ mission. In addition to supporting individuals at their homes, I spent time in shelters working with those who had no place to go.

Bringing Out the Best
Traveling through tornado-ravaged communities was a humbling experience. Some neighborhoods suffered little or no damage, while others were completely destroyed. Nature can be very cruel when one property remains untouched while the adjacent property is nothing but a pile of rubble that was once a home. Possessions that were once relatively meaningless reminders of the past became precious collectables in the hands of those who lost so much. One woman held her daughter’s Red Cross swimming card earned by passing a swimming test in the early 1970s. This small piece of paper had now become a treasure.

Disasters bring out the best in people or so it seemed. Communities came together, and everyone did what they could to help. The volunteer spirit was easy to see. Community centers aiding in the disaster relief were everywhere. In addition to services offered by the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), stations were set up by community leaders to provide water, food, clothing and other services for those in need. Free haircuts and many other services were offered. I met a woman who set up her sewing machine inside a shelter to help tailor and mend the secondhand clothes to fit their new owners. Everyone seemed to contribute.

Inspiration was all around. I marveled at the resilience of many but particularly a married couple I met who not only lost their home but the general store they owned, which was only a short walk from their home. As a disaster mental health volunteer, I was sent to help with their emotional needs, but as I stood with them overlooking their properties, I wondered who was receiving the most out of the meeting. They had lost everything, yet they could still speak of being lifted in the air while clinging to each other as the tornado hit. These amazing individuals believed they would get their lives back again, and they knew the importance of being alive and of their place in the community. Their house was destroyed, but their strength remained untouched by the disaster.

My eyes were opened to rural poverty, which was different from the urban poverty I am used to seeing. It was hard to realize that so many families and individuals who had little to begin with, now had most, if not all, of that taken away. One family had lost everything a few years earlier and had relocated from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Another family had recently completed rebuilding after a fire destroyed their home a year ago. I was impressed by the generosity of families and communities. Those fortunate enough to have been missed by the tornado opened their homes, their hearts and their wallets. People really did take care of each other.

Traveling through Georgia and Alabama, I experienced the expansiveness of our country. The Red Cross had given me the opportunity to reach beyond my home, my school, my neighborhood and my state. I was reminded how easy it is to help others. As a school counselor, I felt prepared to be a part of the disaster mental health team, and I am appreciative of this enriching, life-changing opportunity. My volunteer experiences have reshaped my thoughts on humanity, and the connections I made have strengthened and enhanced my skills as a school counselor.

Coming home wasn’t the end, but a stepping-off point to continued volunteerism. As I shared my experiences during classroom lessons with my students, I was able to teach them firsthand the importance of helping and caring for others. We are all part of a team, whether it’s the Red Cross, a school classroom or our family. We all have times when our team needs assistance and care. My wish is that we can all be ready to lend a hand when the need arises.

Judi Schmitz is an elementary school counselor for the Methacton School District in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at jschmitz@methacton.org.