From witness to volunteer: the expansive work of dedicated mental health volunteer Naomi Berkowitz

by Michele Maki, Public Affairs volunteer, American Red Cross

naomi berkowitzIn the 17 years since a deadly tornado jolted her psyche, Naomi Berkowitz has dedicated herself to the mental well-being of others experiencing tragedy as an American Red Cross mental health volunteer.

It all started when Naomi and her family were driving to Minnesota. Suddenly, the traffic stalled, and she noticed there was no oncoming traffic. As they were detoured, the family passed downed trees, debris and a Red Cross emergency vehicle. It was June 18, 2001, and a tornado had just ripped through Siren, Wisconsin, leveling much of the village and killing three people.

“We had no idea there had been a tornado outbreak that day. There was no siren and we had no warning.” Berkowitz remembered.

The images couldn’t be erased from Berkowitz’s mind, and when she returned to her home near Milwaukee, she drove to the chapter office of the American Red Cross and signed up as a volunteer.

Berkowitz worked professionally as a mental health therapist and it wasn’t long before she discovered that those skills were needed in the volunteer realm, too.

“Before this event in Siren, I had heard about the Red Cross. But, I didn’t realize the extraordinary lengths the Red Cross goes through to support those affected by disasters. I really, really had no idea.”

Berkowitz found out that there are many kinds of disasters and traumatic events the Red Cross will be called upon to respond and assist. These range from natural disasters like a flood or tornado, to events that require mass evacuations like an industrial explosion. It may also include mass casualty events like a mass shooting or transportation disaster.

downloadMay is national Mental Health Awareness Month, and Naomi’s skills and compassion provide a vital resource to innumerable local and national people affected by traumatic events, said Christie Catlin, Disaster Recovery Manager, American Red Cross of Wisconsin.

“There are so many aspects to recovery for the people served by the Red Cross. Naomi and her colleagues on the Disaster Mental Health team can be an amazing resource for clients who may be carrying incredible pain or stress,” Catlin said. “She’s also become a great voice and resource for her fellow volunteers on the frontlines, who are also dealing with these disasters. I’m proud to have Naomi on our team.”

Naomi Berkowitz has moved up the volunteer ranks to become the Disaster Mental Health Wisconsin Region Program Lead. She’s also been on numerous deployments across the U.S. Most recently, she was deployed for Hurricane Harvey in Texas and again for the deadly California wildfires and subsequent mudslides.

“We meet with those who have survived unthinkable trauma,” she said. “They’ve lost their home, possessions, and sometimes neighbors and loved ones. Our disaster mental health teams listen, without judgment, and offer emotional support and tools to help them with stress management, coping skills, and if appropriate, referrals to local resources.”  

Berkowitz added: “And always, all of our Red Cross services are confidential and free. These are trained mental health professionals and there is never any charge for Red Cross assistance. This is made possible by our generous donors.”

Berkowitz and her colleagues know that part of the recovery process for those affected by trauma, is navigating the triggers that can ambush a survivor after the event.

“Anniversaries can be very difficult. But if the individual prepares and understands this, they can be ready for all those feelings and memories that spring up,” she said. “We try to help prepare them and give them those tools for coping with it.”

Berkowitz explained further, with an example: “A couple of years ago there was a big condo fire. The main building was totally destroyed, and although the surrounding buildings were relatively undamaged, the residents that had been evacuated were still quite traumatized. They were really struggling. It had hit them: This could have been me!”

So, Berkowitz, gathered the Red Cross Disaster Action Team that had responded to the fire and some of the firefighters to meet with the residents. In this way, they had an opportunity to talk out and vent their experience and their fears. This was an important step for these residents in their journey to recovery.

The disaster mental health volunteers also help prepare communities for traumatic events. “Coping in Today’s World” is a program they offer to community leaders and groups.

“Programs like this can give a community some simple tools for handling stress and develop coping skills. It’s not therapy, but these are important support tools.” Berkowitz explained.

But, with multiple deployments each year to disasters like Hurricane Harvey, how do the Red Cross volunteers, themselves, cope with all the suffering they see?

Berkowitz explained: “We want to take good care of those kind hearts! During the deployments, we walk around, visit and remind our volunteers of the same things we tell our clients: be sure to drink your water and stay hydrated. Get appropriate rest, and eat healthy. Take a break and take a walk. And, if you’re feeling like you need some support, we’re here for you.

“After our volunteers return home, we follow up with a post-deployment follow up phone call just to check in on them. They’ve served long, long hours and been apart from family for weeks.  Coming back to ‘the world’ can be difficult. We want to support our volunteers in every way we can.”

Volunteers like Naomi Berkowitz continue to reach out to assist all in need: from a home fire to wildfire, from school shooting to train derailment, from volunteer to community group, the mental health volunteers from the American Red Cross are ready 24/7 to serve and assist. For more information on how you can help be more prepared or to become a Red Cross volunteer, visit here.  

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The American Red Cross Responds to Wildfires; Local Volunteer Answers the Call to Help…. Part II

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Shirley and Rudy Senarighi

On Tuesday, July 22, Rudy Senarighi, of Sturgeon Bay, WI, packed his bags and was on a flight to Seattle, Washington to assist in the area of Disaster Mental Health for those impacted in the WA Wildfires.  We brought you Rudy’s story on July 25 and to read the first part of his story click HERE.

We are proud of Rudy for putting his life on hold to answer the call to help. We are happy to share that Rudy will be coming home to Wisconsin on Thursday from his Red Cross deployment. We thank him for sharing his thoughts, experiences, and how the Red Cross is helping those impacted….here is the rest of his story.

DAY 4:

It was a long, hot day in Pateros. Up at 5:00 AM to get some coffee before the drive north for a meeting of organizations in Pateros. We set up two tents near the high school to accommodate Disaster Mental health, Health Services and Client Casework. Had a number of folks stop in, some just to sit and relate their stories. The fire has burned down enough so damage assessment can get in and take a look around. The estimate prior to this was 200 homes destroyed. They now are saying they estimate over 300 were lost. Some are talking about rebuilding, some are just leaving, its sad. The town still has no power as 300 miles of wire and poles were burned and are down. They are hoping to get the main line along the highway and into town done over this weekend, but the laterals to the folks in the back country won’t be up for at least a month. Most of them are on generators, but there has been a rash of generator thefts. The orchard growers are bringing in big diesel generators to be able to water the orchards. They are estimating that they have lost 12 – 18% of their trees and fruit from the fire. A 75 year old smoke jumper team captain said in all his years of dealing with fires, he has never seen one as devastating as this one. By the way, my hot shower tonight was WONDERFUL!!!!

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DAY 5:

 91 degrees and clear sky in Pateros today but the good news is power is back on to most of the town. The outlying areas (dirt roads to the interior) are still w/o electricity. However, we are bringing in food, water and tomorrow will begin to bring in ice to them. Temps are predicted to hit mid 90s tomorrow. People continue to show up at Pateros high School with trailers or truck loads og goods to donate. Talked with a couple today who drove from Walla Walla to Pateros to donate. (mapquest that one) Some folks were sharing that they had been allowed back into their property and were sifting through the ashes. they said the found some ceramic stuff intact (been fired already) but everything else was burned or melted. As in every disaster there are weird stories about things surviving. A family pulled their trailer away as the flames were rolling up the hills toward their place. Their buildings were destroyed, but the patio table, chairs and umbrella were still standing untouched.


They are moving us to Brewster,WA in the next two days as they begin to restructure the approach. that will give us less driving to get to the affected area. Working in that temperature today was pretty draining. Kept hydrated, but I am really bushed tonight. Five more active days for me and then I outprocess and head home. Great experience here, but it really helps ground you in the reality of how fortunate you are to have a comfortable home and loved ones to return to.

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DAY 6: 

Flexibility. Plans changed. The fire blew up again in Black canyon which is 7 miles up the road from Pateros, so that’s where we were sent back to this morning. The scooper planes and helicopters along with firefighters on the ground handled it well. air was smokey for the morning but the fire was out. We made outreach trips to the Alta Lake area. 47 homes completely destroyed there along with many vehicles. Good news for the day is the temperature did not hit the predicted 102 degrees and stayed at 94. People are beginning to really come to our service center, which lessens our time driving the back roads looking for people. we’ve coordinated well with other agencies, and there is minimal duplication of services. At one point we thought we would be ramping down the operation, but there still is a lot of the forest hot and burning.

The reception that we have gotten from the people here is very positive and welcoming. My big “in” with one of the local leaders is that her favorite uncle is named Rudy. What a lucky guy.

DAY 7:

 

The community at Pateros is ending their mass feeding tomorrow. They have been operating from the high school, but need to get ready for the school year. All the donations stored there (and as Jacob Marley would say about the quantity, “it is a ponderous thing) need to moved and stored by Friday. We will be working with the Southern Baptist group to continue the feeding from our ERVs. Temperature is rising, hitting 106 today. We have put up tent awnings to deliver our casework from, but it still gets quite warm under the tents. People continue to return and shift through the ashes.
I have downloaded a couple of pictures of the area from my camera. You have to imagine 400 square miles looking like this. There is a picture of two cars in a driveway. The shiny ribbons of metal between them is melted aluminum from the cars. There is a constant smell in the air of wet ashes, like when you drown a campfire. Fire is now at the stage similar to a controlled burn. Most of the really hot spots are in the national forest. The terrain is rugged and remote and much of that will burn or be controlled by back fires.

It has been a week now and the shock is setting in for the people. Business is picking up.
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Day 8: 
Last day in the field. 109 degrees at 4:.00. Drank a LOT of water today. The fire flared up again and planes were ferrying water from the Columbia River back to the blaze and dropping it. Got a couple of pictures from the rise overlooking Pateros. Smoke made the air hazy for most of the morning, but it cleared off slightly by afternoon. Talked to one resident who lost his house who told me the ground got so hot the buried wires and PVC pipe melted. Attaching some photos of the planes scooping water from the river. tomorrow is my day off. Plan on a lazy day and doing some laundry. I out process on Thursday. If I don’t work that day I am going to try for a flight home. Got a nice goodbye from the folks in Pateros.

 

Action and Compassion Continues for the People of Northeast WI

American Red Cross workers continues to help those impacted by the August 7th tornadoes that hit Northeast Wisconsin. Over the weekend, the Red Cross sent two mobile feeding trucks to the communities of Wrightstown, Freedom, Appleton, Hortonville and New London. These trucks had water, ice, snacks, sandwiches and gloves for our disaster responders to distribute to those in need.  In addition, we had our health services and mental health professionals going door-to-door to offer their services. We also had items including teddy bears and books to help calm and comfort children impacted by the storms.

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Char Martinson shows Mallory, Red Cross worker, the damage an f2 tornado caused to the back yard.

 “It’s unbelievable how responsive and dedicated the American Red Cross is…it’s great!” are the first words that came from Char Martinson, who was helping with clean-up efforts at her daughters home. Not 10 years prior, Char and her husband experienced a tornado in their hometown of Ladysmith, WI. “Yep, you bet Red Cross was there for us then too!”

As of Aug 11, our total response includes:

  • Serving 6,317 meals and snacks to those impacted.
  • Distribution of 8,000 pounds of ice.
  • Three shelters open (Wrightstown, Appleton and New London) for people to receive water, food, ice, take showers, a place to stay, and a place to charge electronics.
  • Two mobile feeding trucks were in impacted communities delivering water, ice, snacks, sandwiches, and gloves.
  • 75 Red Cross workers responding to those in need.

When walking the storm ravaged neighborhoods, it was easy to see neighbors were helping neighbors and the whole community pitching in. “That’s why it’s so rewarding to drive into communities with the Red Cross supplies and a shoulder to lean-on to help people start recovering,” stated Jody Weyers, a Red Cross responder.

If you need help due to storm/tornado damage throughout Northeast Wisconsin, please call 1-800-236-8680 for assistance. Disaster teams are ready to help you with your immediate emergency needs and we are turning our attention to long-term recovery.

To view pictures of our response efforts please click HERE.

Local Resident Helps Out in Aftermath of Sandy

October 31, 2012 By Carol Thompson Peninsula Pulse 

Rudy Senarighi and his wife Shirley volunteer for the Red Cross during national disasters. Rudy is helping the Red Cross’s mental health team with Hurricane Sandy disaster relief.

At some point in your life, you decide if you’re going to just take up space or do something good for the world. Rudy Senarighi chose to do something good. On the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 31, he hopped on a plane to New Jersey to volunteer with the Red Cross Hurricane Sandy disaster relief efforts.Senarighi, of Sturgeon Bay, helps with the Red Cross’s mental health team.

He’s a retired guidance counselor who worked at Walker Middle School for 25 years, and when the Red Cross sent out a call for volunteers in the mental health field, he signed up. “I’m retired now, and I have the time,” said Senarighi. “I want to give back.

Senarighi’s volunteered at nine natural disasters, including hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the tornados in Joplin, Missouri. He’s also helped out with local disasters like fires.

He’s not sure what he’ll be assigned to do in New Jersey – it depends on what needs to be done. In the past he’s helped support victims and other volunteers, and helped connect people in need with available resources.

For the next three weeks, Senarighi will be helping to bring normalcy back to a disaster zone. He does it because he knows he can help, and he wants to give his time and energy to people that could really use it.

“We know they’re going to be there for us when we need them, so we’re going to be there for them,” Senarighi said.

Red Cross Helps Anxious Gulf Residents as Isaac Looms

Uncertainty resurfaces for people along Gulf Coast with Katrina anniversary

With Isaac poised to make landfall in the same areas of the Gulf Coast struck by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, the American Red Cross has a series of tips for families and individuals in the region that may experience anxiety about the storm and anniversary.

“The combination of the approaching storm and Katrina anniversary will likely cause increased fear and unease for residents in New Orleans and along coastal communities as people relive difficult emotions,” said Rob Yin, manager of disaster mental health, American Red Cross. “It’s important that people remember to take care of themselves and make appropriate disaster preparations to stay safe which can also help to reduce stress. Don’t forget to reach out to others to offer or get help if you need it.”

Across multiple states along the Gulf, the Red Cross has launched a large disaster response as Isaac affects millions of lives with strong winds, heavy rain, flooding and coastal surges. Last night, nearly 800 people found a safe haven in 52 shelters open in five states. In addition, the Red Cross has mobilized 2,400 disaster workers, prepositioned 290,000 ready-to-eat meals and activated 187 emergency response vehicles from across the country to help. The Red Cross is also coordinating with multiple partners including a variety of civic groups, advocacy organizations, professional organizations and houses of worship to share their expertise and volunteers.

The Red Cross recommends that people be mindful that community members and disaster workers could experience anniversary reactions now or in the near future. Reactions can range from a mild upset for a day or two, to a stronger version with anxiety or depression. Most people will feel better within a week or two after the anniversary date as stress responses usually become less frequent and less severe over time.

Anniversary reactions could include:

  • Experiencing similar feelings and thoughts that occurred during the event like sadness, fearfulness or uncertainty;
  • Feeling the need to avoid events, places or people that are connected to the anniversary; 
  • Feeling nervous, on edge, jumpy or quick to anger;
  • Difficulty sleeping, focusing or concentrating; 
  • Experiencing fatigue, pain, headaches or stomachaches; and

The following actions can help families and individuals cope with anniversary stress reactions:

  • Stay informed and be prepared. If in the potential path of an approaching storm, pay attention to information and warnings from local authorities.
  • Make sure your disaster kit and plans are complete. Being prepared for storms can reduce stress;
  • Eat healthy. During times of stress it is important to maintain a balanced diet and drink plenty of water;
  • Get some rest. Giving your mind and body a break can help you cope with stress;
  • Stay connected with family and friends. Giving and receiving support is one of the most important things you can do;
  • Be patient with yourself and those around you. Recognize that people may need time to put their feelings and thoughts in order;
  • Stay positive. Remind yourself how you’ve successfully coped with stress in the past. Reach out when you need support, and help others when they need it.
  • Reach out to a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health or community mental health professional for support, if the actions above don’t help or to get more support. You can also contact the 24 hour National Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990.

Isaac is predicted to trigger a large and prolonged disaster response with major flooding across several states. People can call, click or text to donate by visiting http://www.redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

Taking Care of Your Emotional Health After a Disaster

In light of the recent tragedy of the Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin we want to make sure that people are taking care of their own emotional needs.  We are on scene with trained mental health assistance and supporting emergency response teams. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the many people impacted by this disater.

Click HERE for tips for taking care of your own emotional health after such tragedy.

American Red Cross Deploys Local Volunteer to Mississippi

It’s almost lunch time and 10 year-old Tyaleia Allen is having her first meal of the day; that’s being provided by the American Red Cross. Photo Credit: Tamica Smith-Jeuitt/American Red Cross

American Red Cross volunteer Tom Powell, of Ripon, will be leaving Wednesday, April 20, for Jackson, MS to help the people impacted by the multiple tornadoes and storms that affected not just Mississippi but also Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas.

Tom is assigned to go out as a Disaster Mental Health Supervisor. As a supervisor he potentially could be over seeing other mental health volunteers working in a shelter, service center or helping with outreach teams in the field.  Tom will obtain his specific assignment and location once he lands in Jackson,MS.

Disasters can have a huge emotional impact on people and it is great to have trained volunteers, like Tom, that are there to lend a shoulder and just be there for someone to talk to,” said Nick Clippert, Emergency Services Manager, East Central WI Chapter.

This will be Tom’s fourth national disaster assignment. His first was for Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 and he has also assisted in mental health for the Wisconsin Floods in 2007 and 2008.

Tom was a clinical Psychologist at Theda Clark before retirement and has been a Red Cross mental health volunteer for seven years.

Tom is the second local Red Cross person to be deployed to help with the Southern Tornadoes. Sunday, April17, Barbara Behling, regional community development officer for the American Red Cross Northeast Wisconsin, arrived in Raleigh,NC. She is working with the Red Cross Public Affairs Team.

The Red Cross depends on financial donations to help people affected by disasters like these tornadoes and wildfires. You can help by making a donation to support American Red Cross Disaster Relief. Visit http://www.redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross,P.O. Box 37243,Washington,DC20013.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation’s blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.