Disaster Mental Health Volunteer Spotlight: Rudy and Shirley Senarighi

By Dawn Miller, Red Cross Volunteer

Just as Rudy and Shirley Senarighi, of Sturgeon Bay,  sit down to enjoy dinner, the phone rings. Shirley gets up to answer it. The couple has been volunteering for the American Red Cross for several years and Rudy knows by Shirley’s end of the conversation that the American Red Cross needs their assistance.

As volunteers, the couple responds locally to help with area disasters and they have also been on several national deployments assisting in a Disaster Mental Health capacity. Between them, the couple has over 60 years of professional experience as counselors, teachers and administrative supervisors. They also bring experience in school district disaster planning and the Door County Critical Incident Stress Management Program to their volunteer roles.

The couple supports the American Red Cross in whatever way they are most needed locally and nationally. On national deployment volunteers are placed in roles to best utilize their skills for a particular disaster, as there are many needs during the crises the American Red Cross responds to.

The assignments are varied but the couple is always positioned in Disaster Mental Health roles so they can help the American Red Cross ensure that the immediate mental health needs are attended to along with the physical immediate needs.

“When we first arrive on scene at a disaster, the magnitude of the devastation is difficult to comprehend; no amount of preparation or discussion before hand can really describe it,” says Rudy.  “However, once we’ve seen and toured a disaster site, we begin to get our heads around what the people may be experiencing.”

What was once unimaginable is now reality: homes destroyed, livelihoods lost, loved ones missing or gone. Workers from the American Red Cross know that people not only need supplies to keep up their physical well-being, such as food and water, but they also need emotional support.

The last deployment for Rudy and Shirley was to the hard hit are of Joplin, MO after a devastating F5 tornado ripped through the town on May 22, 2011 causing 116 deaths. Rudy and Shirly both served there for  many weeks.

Rudy, a cancer survivor for 11 years, believes his experience helps him bring focus to the really important things in life as he interacts with disaster survivors.

Rudy performed outreach in the community, helped at aid stations in various neighborhoods hit by the tornado, as well as provided support at a client shelter.  He checked on individuals as to their need for resources, plans for reintegrating into their community and triaged their mental health needs.

Shirley was the mental health lead for the Integrated Care Teams (ICT).  She worked with the health lead to assemble and train ten teams of four volunteers per team – client casework, health, mental health, and spiritual care.  The ICT teams contacted and met with families of those who had died as a result of the tornado.  These teams contacted well over one hundred families within the first two weeks of the operation.

Shirley says it was difficult but rewarding to help coordinate the teams in Joplin. “The personal conversations with these families were hearty wrenching and meaningful.  I felt the ICT served an extremely valuable service in meeting the needs of these families in a very sensitive and private manner.”

“The most difficult part is leaving the disaster operation while seeing so much work yet to do and not being able to finish things started,” says Rudy.

The couple is proud to serve the American Red Cross both locally and nationally to help communities with that start. It’s important, “being there to listen to the individual stories and then helping people sort through their options to begin to make steps forward,” says Rudy.

So when that phone call comes in the middle of a frigid, Wisconsin night or as the plates are just hitting the dinner table, “We look at one another briefly and then say, ‘yes, we’ll go.’  We know others would be there if we needed help,” says Shirley.

Local volunteer to help Haiti victims

Published : Sunday, 07 Feb 2010, 4:16 PM CST

Sturgeon Bay resident and Red Cross volunteer Shirley Senarighi is on her way to help the people affected by the massive earthquake in Haiti. Senarighi took a flight out of the Outagamie County Regional Airport Sunday afternoon.

“I think one of the things we need to do is listen,” Senarighi told FOX 11. While the relief effort continues in Haiti, Senarighi is heading to Miami. The retired principal and guidance counselor will work as a mental health counselor with people who were injured in the earthquake and evacuated to the U.S.

“There are a lot of great people who provide those immediate needs in regards to food or shelter,” Senarighi said. “But there’s a lot of emotional experience going on for these people as well.”

This is not Senarighi’s first deployment. In 2008, she traveled to Illinois to help victims of the Midwest floods. A few months later, she traveled to Texas to help victims of Hurricane Ike.

“I’ve felt on the deployments I’ve been involved with the people really looked for our assistance and support,” Senarighi said.

Senarighi added that victims of natural disaster typically go through the same emotions.

“The shock, the denial, depression,” Senarighi said. “There are a lot of different things that I think regardless of the type of disaster, the reactions are often quite the same and they’re very cyclical.”

But with the massive devastation in Haiti, Senarighi is not sure what to expect. But she is happy to help.

“We need to give them a chance to talk about what happened,” Senarighi said. “Then help reframe and think about what’s next. We need to help them think about what’s next.”

Senarighi is planning to return to Wisconsin in early March. Although depending on the needs of the people, that time frame could change. While in Miami, she will also be helping some of the relief workers returning from Haiti.