Most 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 burning down the street, a California wildfire, or a flood in Louisiana, the Red Cross has a chapter to provide immediate services to that community. Red Cross is mostly volunteer-based, and in addition, there are Disaster Mental Health Teams comprised of licensed mental health professionals at most chapters. Last but not least, Red Cross also has a program called Service to the Armed Forces (SAF), which acts like a liaison (communication between families and their enlisted loved ones) and as support for the US military. Within SAF, licensed mental health professionals can train to volunteer in hosting and facilitating Reconnection Workshops for service members and their families throughout the USA. In joining the American Red Cross chapter of San Diego and Imperial Counties, which is part of the Pacific Division of the Red Cross, 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? Joining is easy! Just visit the Red Cross’ Volunteer Page, and apply. It is pretty straight forward from there, and upon completion, the chapter volunteer coordinator will contact you to set you up with training. Training includes an online module on Disaster Response, and two in-person classes that include Mental Health First Aid, and of course, Disaster Mental Health (both are facilitated by a DMH volunteer). More information here. If you decide to proceed from there and become a SAF volunteer, you should speak to your SAF representative at your local headquarters. In order to apply, you will have to fill out a form, which includes obtaining a recommendation letter. A second application will be required if you would also like to facilitate workshops for children. If accepted to facilitate adult workshops, you will attend a one-day training. If you also plan to facilitate workshops with children, you will need to have your fingerprints taken for a background check, as well as attend a second-day workshop. If a training occurs outside of your headquarters, the Red Cross will reimburse the cost for travel.
What does volunteering actually look like? Well, volunteering 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, it can be physically responding to a wildfire, 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 flexible and patient 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 since my schedule permitted it. After providing my official availability to my chapter, I was approved to volunteer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was e-mailed information on the disaster, how to book my flight, rent a car (if needed), etc. As a volunteer, you can book your flight through the Red Cross’ Travel Agency 24-hours in advance. I was then instructed to meet with a DMH representative from my local chapter in order to be briefed on the disaster, and to collect my debit card ($35/day allowance). Mind you, shelter and transportation are included.
Upon landing in New Orleans, I went to Avis (as per my e-mail instructions) to pick up a rental car and drive to the Baton Rouge headquarters. Once I arrived at headquarters (two hours later, after brutal traffic on the 10E), I was introduced to my wonderful direct supervisor, who walked me through registration (including turning in my rental car, obtaining information on my hotel and who my roommate would be, etc.). 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 PM, it was time for staff shift-change, as we were each operating on 12-hour shifts (7 AM – 7 PM/7 PM- 7 AM). 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. Since most of the disaster victims were housed by the time I arrived to the disaster, there was no longer a need for us volunteers to also stay in a shelter. Instead, we could stay in a Holiday Inn, or a similar hotel. I was appreciative of this, as I knew I would be needing a good night’s sleep.
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 disaster turned into two, when there was a local apartment complex fire that caused pretty severe damage to multiple units, and housed some victims who had just relocated there after very recently losing their housing to the flood. We as a team 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 the 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. In New Orleans I dropped off the rental car we used to drive to New Orleans, and slept in a nearby hotel (provided by Red Cross) for my early morning flight.
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 definitely pack snacks, as the shelter’s food is generally not geared towards food sensitivities.
I hope that this helps to roughly illustrate the process of becoming a Disaster Mental Health volunteer with the American Red Cross, and what volunteering as one may look like. With that said, if you are interested, and able to, just know your skills would be both needed and much appreciated as a volunteer.
As always, Buen Camino!
2016 Luisiana Floods DMH Volunteers in photo (from left to right): Christina Kantzavelos, Linda Bruno, Shirley Woodard, Margaret (Peggy) McGee-Smith, Carolyn Jenkins