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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“There are so many ways to help”: Erin Martin jumps into disaster volunteer roles

by Antonia Towns, Red Cross volunteer

When a tornado blew through the town of Chili, Erin Martin swirled into action.

A firefighter and longtime Wisconsin resident, Erin helped to coordinate a community clean-up effort for the town, about 20 minutes west of Marshfield. A few years later and after the birth of a child, Erin remained inspired by the disaster response experience, and signed up as a volunteer with the Red Cross.


“There’s a huge need for it in Clark County. It’s been good,” said Erin, one of the volunteers we’re highlighting during National Volunteer Appreciation Week.

With 22 years of experience working for the fire department, 19 of those years as a firefighter, Erin brings a unique set of skills that are beneficial to her volunteer position on the Disaster Action Team (D.A.T.) with the Red Cross. Along with her skills and experience, Erin carries plenty of compassion.

“I’ve seen people after a house fire and they just have a sense of hopelessness with no clue of how to rebuild. I can point them in the right direction and understand what they went through,” she said.

She recalled a time when she responded to a house fire where the family had been split up.

“After I gave them their card and told them what to do next, the wife started crying. We gave them some direction,” Erin said, adding, “You’re one of the first people that tells the victims that they’re going to be OK.”

Brian Cockerham, Red Cross North Central Chapter disaster program manager, called Erin an “invaluable volunteer” for her steadfast presence in Clark County.

“Erin is a not only an amazing Red Cross volunteer but is a great community member and a real asset to people around her,” Cockerham said.

Although firefighters often partner with Red Cross staff and volunteers, Erin said she didn’t know the extent of Red Cross offerings and programs until she joined D.A.T. For instance, training to provide emotional support to people who have suffered from a residential fire let her know that “there are so many ways to help.”

And with her holistic emergency background – for which she was awarded a Hometown Hero honor from the North Central Chapter of the Red Cross – comes a well-rounded view of the impact during emergencies.

“I’ve seen people during the events, and with the Red Cross, now I see them after, in recovery,” she said. “I’ve seen the full circle now.”

For more information on the ways you can help your community and our state, visit redcross.org/volunteer.

Two States + Two Disasters = One Team

Mary Gagnon

Mary Gagnon

For six non-stop weeks, the Texas weather was dreadful. Residents were experiencing multiple tornadoes, large hail, heavy rainfall and flooding causing the dams to breach. More than 100 counties were affected by this treacherous weather. (Wisconsin only has 72-counties; so this was a massive area) American Red Cross chapters throughout Texas helped residents affected by opening 60 shelters, served more than 350,000 meals and snacks and engaged 2,300 trained Red Cross responders. Wisconsin provided 42 responders; this is the first-hand story of our own Mary Gagnon.

 

On June 15, the Red Cross asked my husband Dean and I to deploy to Houston, Texas to help with disaster relief. Both of us volunteer with the Red Cross and reside in Texas AND Wisconsin. We arrived on the 16th and were reminded immediately of the heat and humidity that sends us back north each spring.

After a week of providing shelter and food near Houston, we were reassigned to the Rio Grande Valley, near the tip of Texas. Coincidentally, this general area is where we live during the winter. And our ‘hometown’ Red Cross Chapter there became headquarters.Flooded road, Edinburg, TX

There were so many people with so few personal resources. Residents told us of flood waters three feet deep in their homes and side streets were impassable for days. When we found an unflooded driveway, we parked the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV), which contained water, food and hygiene kits. There, we asked people to phone neighbors down the street to let them know we were there to help. Invariably, word travelled fast, and people lined-up to receive what they needed and wanted: hot food, bottled water, Clorox, shovels and mosquito repellant.

Cruz Roja at Edinburg shelter

When there were still items remaining in the ERV, which is a large ambulance sized vehicle so we could haul large amounts of supplies, we drove to a nearby street and started the process again.

Steve Stringer with Cruz Roja in Edinburg-2

The American Red Cross increased its staffing resources when Cruz Roja Mexicana (Mexican Red Cross) arrived. As the flooding decreased and people could get out of their homes, the Cruz Roja site provided necessary cleaning materials and, just as importantly, the ability to respond in Spanish to needs and stories provided by those flooded out of their homes. We felt fortunate to work with Cruz Roja! They understood the community needs; the difficulties of the weather and the support needed to bring back ‘normalcy’ to Hidalgo and Cameron Counties.

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The following week, on our way back to the local Red Cross Chapter to re-fill our ERV with cases of water and clean-up materials, we stopped at a gas station. The search-and-distribute system of helping home owners during the recent Texas floods brought much-needed supplies directly to people considering the scorching 96 degree weather. This system created a need for us to get just a few minutes of rest. An ice cream bar and air conditioning altered my core temperature just enough to make getting back on the road OK. But it was the unexpected ‘coolness’ of hearing The Spinners singing on the store’s music system that recouped my energy! With only the bathroom mirror watching, I danced to ‘Rubber Band Man’ with all of my best ‘60s and 70s moves.

And Coolness was achieved.

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Upon returning to Wisconsin for the ‘summer’ they were deployed to Columbus, Wisconsin to open an evacuation center/shelter for people affected by the July 13th 90-mile per hour winds. Two (states) plus two (disasters) really can equal ONE RED CROSS. To begin your own Red Cross adventure, please check here for volunteer opportunities.

Stories from our Volunteers: Tornado Deployment in Little Rock Arkansas

By Kathy Schuh-Ries, Disaster Volunteer 

Travis Waack, Regional Manager, Direct Services, working with Kathy Schuh-Ries in filling out her deployment paperwork.

Travis Waack, Regional Manager, Direct Services, working with Kathy Schuh-Ries in filling out her deployment paperwork.

On May 2nd, I was deployed by the Red Cross to assist as a Mental Health volunteer in Little Rock Arkansas. An F4 tornado had touched down the Sunday before leaving 16 people deceased, with mass destruction to the towns of Mayflower and Velonia.  The tornado was ¾ of a mile wide and left behind slabs with piles of debris where homes and neighborhoods once stood.

After signing in at Red Cross Headquarters in Little Rock and receiving my assignment, I joined other workers in setting up an outreach center in Beryl Baptist Church in Conway Arkansas. I was part of a team of three. Two of my co-workers followed a Red Cross ERV (emergency response vehicle) delivering food to disaster areas and talking to people in the neighborhoods while I met people who walked in at the church. I listened to their account of the events that happened to each one personally. In assessing the needs through these conversations I was able to refer for resources to assist in recovery.

At Beryl Baptist, the Red Cross staffed a shelter that assisted families and individuals during the first week. When the shelter was no longer needed, the church assisted in food distribution. Volunteers from the church assisted in this distribution of canned goods, water and other items that where donated. Clothing was distributed in a church down the road.

Some of the destruction in the Arkansas area, but the American Flag still stands.

Some of the destruction in the Arkansas area, but the American Flag still stands.

I was able to meet individuals and families and refer them for other services at the MARC (Mass Assistance Recovery Center) a place in town where twelve different agencies were equipped to assist people who needed medical services, eye glasses, food, clothing, tree and debris removal etc. The center was located four miles away from the church.

I was touched by the many volunteers who responded to this horrific disaster. While there were too many to remember, I want to note a few. The Southern Baptist, who cooked thousands of meals which then were delivered by the Red Cross throughout the town and on Saturday, the day we arrived, bus loads of volunteers (1,500), came to assist in debris removal and clean up.

To read more about Kathy’s deployment, here is a link to the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter who did a story about her deployment.  

THANK YOU Kathy from your friends at the Red Cross for being there to answer the call!!

Safe and Well – Helping to Reconnect Families and Loved Ones

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After a disaster, like the recent tornadoes we have seen, letting your family and friends know that you are safe and well can bring your loved ones great peace of mind. This website is designed to help make that communication easier.  

About Safe and Well 

When disasters strike, loved ones can become separated. If you have been affected by a disaster, you can register yourself on the American Red Cross Safe and Well website.

Family and friends can search the list of  those who have registered themselves. A successful search will bring up a loved one’s first name, last name and a brief message.

“Safe & Well is a simple and easy tool that everyone needs to be aware of.  When disasters strike our normal ways of communicating with each other may be disrupted.  Individuals can register themselves on the website, or Red Cross can do it for them, and family members can search to see if their loved one is okay after the disaster,” said Nick Cluppert, Disaster Program Manager.  

“When I deployed with Red Cross to Alabama in 2011 for tornadoes, and to Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey I saw first-hand how people became disconnected, and the Safe & Well website helped to bring those people back together.”

Always Available

Safe and Well is always available. Access to the Website is made available at shelters, service delivery sites and many partner agency locations. During large-scale disasters, when Internet and phone lines may be compromised, trained volunteers can help you register using a paper form.

Privacy

Your privacy is preserved. No specific location or contact information is displayed unless you choose to do so in your custom message. People will need to know your name and address or phone number in order to see your post.

Integration with Social Media

Do you use Facebook or Twitter? After registering, you can click on these icons to post your selected messages right on your Facebook or Twitter page. And your loved ones won’t need to remember any logins or passwords to see that you are safe

For more information or to search for a loved one go to: redcross.org/safeandwell  

Red Cross Helps Arkansas Tornado Survivors with Shelter, Food and Relief Supplies

As severe weather threat continues, people should prepare and use free app alerts 

Tornado damage, Mayflower Arkansas 27April2014. Early reports and images show that Mayflower Arkansas suffered heavy damage.

The American Red Cross is helping people in Arkansas and several other states affected by Sunday’s devastating tornadoes.

More than 200 people spent Sunday night in shelters in Arkansas that were opened or supported by Red Cross workers. The Red Cross is also providing health and mental health services and Red Cross emergency vehicles will be distributing food throughout the affected areas.

“Our thoughts and sympathy are with all those impacted by these horrific tornadoes,” said Richard Reed, senior vice president, Disaster Cycle Services for the Red Cross. “Red Cross disaster teams are helping now and will continue to help for weeks to come.”

RED CROSS SENDS BLOOD The Red Cross provided several units of type O negative blood to two hospitals in Arkansas before the storm and supplied 40 units of plasma this morning to help treat those who were injured. The hospitals say they have a sufficient blood supply to handle the situation at this point. The Red Cross stands ready to assist with any additional blood needs. Anyone interested in donating blood should call 1-800-RED CROSS or your local blood bank to schedule an appointment in the weeks ahead.

The Red Cross also has shelters open in Oklahoma and is responding in northern Louisiana where flooding occurred after yesterday’s storms. Shelter and services also are being provided in North Carolina, which was hit Friday night by tornadoes.

SEVERE WEATHER NOT OVER The chance of severe storms is moving eastward today and could impact people in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Red Cross chapters in those areas are preparing to respond by readying shelters, supplies and volunteers.

support-american-red-cross-in-arkansas-disaster-relief-for-arkansasDOWNLOAD TORNADO APP People should download the Red Cross tornado app onto their mobile devices. They can use the app’s “I’m Safe” button to let loved ones know they are okay and find the location of Red Cross shelters. The app also includes a high-pitched siren and warning alert that signals when a tornado warning has been issued, as well as also an all-clear alert that lets users know when a tornado warning has expired or has been cancelled. The Red Cross sent out 2.1 million severe weather notifications over the weekend through its tornado app for tornado and thunderstorm watches and warnings.

If someone needs to find a shelter, they can contact their local Red Cross chapter or access the Red Cross shelter map which is updated every 30 minutes with shelter locations by address, city, state and/or zip code.

HOW TO HELP Those who would like to help people affected by disasters like tornadoes, floods and other crises can make a donation to American Red Cross Disaster Relief. People can donate by visiting http://www.redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. These donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small.

Wisconsin’s Tornado and Severe Weather Week – April 21-25

It’s not a nursery rhyme, Mother Nature can huff and puff to blow your house down. In fact, Wisconsin averages 23 tornadoes annually!  Last year, 16 tornadoes were reported, in Wisconsin, by the National Weather Service, including six during the night of August 6, 2013. The strongest tornado, rated an EF2, hit near New London in Waupaca and Outagamie Counties and required a significant response for our Disaster Action Teams.

To help everyone refresh their tornado awareness, the National Weather Service will test our knowledge on Thursday, April 24th.

  • At 1:00p.m. they will issue a mock tornado watch for the entire state. A ‘tornado watch’ means tornadoes are possible. Residents in the watch area should remain alert for approaching storms.
  • At 1:45p.m., they will issue a mock tornado warning. A ‘tornado warning’ means a tornado has been sighted or indicated on weather radar. Residents should move to a safe place immediately.
  • The tornado drill will end at 2:00p.m.

The National Weather Service will conduct the drill even if the sky is cloudy, dark or rainy. If actual severe storms are expected, anywhere, in the state, the tornado drill will be postponed until Friday, April 25 at the same times. If severe storms are possible Friday, the drill will be cancelled. To help refresh your memory of safest places to be, what watch & warnings mean, emergency kit items to have and even audible alerts for where you live, please download the FREE Tornado APP.

Let us know how you have prepared during the week and we will let you know the results of the tornado drills, at our offices, too!