Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksliving - Disaster Spiritual Care Team

Red Cross Chaplain Ron Oliver reflects on his role with Disaster Spiritual Care Team at Red Cross Disaster Headquarters, New York, NY 11/17/12. (American Red Cross/Vicky Brown)
The following was written by Vicky Brown, a Red Cross Public Affairs officer currently responding to Hurricane Sandy.

“Do no harm,” this is the mantra of the Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Team. Led by Certified Chaplain Ronald Oliver, PH.D, (Louisville, KY), the team helps Red Cross staff and clients utilize the resources of their faith to understand and cope with Hurricane Sandy.

“As its core work, chaplains utilize the authority and unique tools of the pastoral office to fortify faith and hope. Also to solve, or at least mitigate, the problems and anxieties of those affected,” Ron said.

Ron pointed out the most important difference between chaplain service and parish pastoral service. “Because of the neutrality of the Red Cross, we offer a spiritual process, not a religious content. In other words, we help people use their religious tool box. This is regardless of whether they are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, etc. We do not do evangelistic preaching of a specific religious agenda, but are inclusive and respectful of all faiths.”

The DSC Team accomplishes this in several ways. Along with Red Cross health and mental health teams, chaplains do condolence visits to those who have tragically lost family members. They visit shelters and distribution sites, to bring hope to those devastated. Chaplains walk the streets in disaster zones comforting individuals and helping with systemic community issues compounded by the storm. They also support Red Cross staff and volunteers through the long, tough days of deployment.

“We help make the heart good again,” as Ron so eloquently stated.

Ron is the System Vice President of Mission and Outreach for the Norton Healthcare System. Norton Healthcare is a faith based, five hospital organization located in Louisville, KY. Ron first took Red Cross training in 1999 and was part of AIR (Air Incident Response) and SAIR (Spiritual Air Incident Response) teams. His first deployment was to the condolence center in New York following 9/11. He also volunteered during the 2006 Comair plane crash in Lexington, KY. Currently he is serving on a national task force to develop a model for more chapters to implement a Disaster Spiritual Care Team. The model is being piloted in Louisville, San Diego and Cincinnati chapters.

On his current deployment in New York, Ron’s job is to set a vision for the DSC Team derived from Red Cross organizational priorities. With a quiet but strong leadership style, he helps remove obstacles, problem solve and encourage. He often has to make sure chaplains and volunteers take care of themselves.
Red Cross Chaplain Allen Sieger offers comfort at the Amityville Distribution Center in Amityville, NY 11/17/12. (American Red Cross/Vicky Brown)

“They will work until they drop and not takes days off,” he said. “I have to show them how to recharge their batteries by getting away from it all. We cannot look into the sun every day without being adversely affected. We will always remember what happened here, be connected to it emotionally and know in some way we made a positive difference. Down the road, broken bones heal, but they always hurt when the weather changes.”

Ron shared some of the client stories that he has dealt with in New York while helping those affected by Hurricane Sandy. In Breezy Way, NY, he found a woman digging through the rubble of her home that had been ravaged by a ferocious fire. She pointed to a tiny black stump on the ground that had previously been the family tree that they had planted years ago. She had taken part of the stump to her sister’s house, where she was now staying. After putting it in water, to her delight, it had started to sprout little green buds. She said, “It is like her life now, living someplace else, but with help, starting to blossom again.”

Two other client families will forever impact Ron's life and remind us all of what is important. Both had lost spouses when each individual went back to retrieve possessions in the rising flood waters. They were subsequently trapped and drowned in the swirling torrent. Ron reflected about the symbolism of this in relation to the upcoming holiday season.

“With water up to your chest, do we choose to save the right stuff? Do we live life with gratitude and humility? Do we live with Thanksliving. Thanksgiving is a discipline, not just a day.”

Good advice for all of us at this holiday and family time.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Shelter Halloween in Yonkers, N.Y.

During Halloween arts and crafts time at a shelter for those affected by Hurricane Sandy
in Yonkers, N.Y., Red Cross employee Kelly Boyd decorates paper pumpkins with--
clockwise from her right--Aasira, Raffiah, Nazaya, Skylar, Destiney, Gabrielle and Zionia.

At the time of this writing, officials report that power is out for 70 percent of the city of Yonkers, N.Y. Hurricane Sandy came through on Monday night, bringing flooding to streets in the city and apartments by the Hudson River. Several families in one such apartment, including 10 young children, were evacuated from their complex on Tuesday night following an electrical outage.

The families came to a shelter staffed by two local Office of Emergency Management officers and seven Red Cross workers including me and my partner Carrie Smith. Carrie has been volunteering with the Red Cross for eight years and was first deployed to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. I have been with the Red Cross for just over two months, and this is my first disaster relief operation.

Seeing so many young faces enter the shelter on the brink of Halloween, with no hopes for trick-or-treating the next day, Carrie and I, along with the other shelter workers, reached a consensus almost immediately that the kids needed an opportunity to celebrate Halloween.

"The reason why we wanted to do something special for the kids," Carrie said, "is because during a disaster everyone is upset—they're hurt and they're crying. They've lost everything they have. So we need to do something to take their minds off of it, even if it's just for two minutes."

So after a Wednesday morning Target run, a Halloween celebration schedule was set in place: arts and crafts, face painting and a "trick-or-treat parade."

Kelly Boyd from the Northern Nevada Red Cross Chapter and I teamed up to help the kids decorate bright orange paper pumpkins with markers and stickers. Once the pumpkins were fully decorated and hanging on the wall, the two of us moved on to face painting. The children (all girls) requested butterflies, princess crowns and kitten whiskers. They couldn't get enough.

For the grand finale, we gave each girl a Halloween bag, and each adult a bag of candy and a place to stand along a long path. The girls then had a trick-or-treat parade, dancing past the runway of people to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," while proudly displaying their face paint and eagerly holding out their bags for the adults to deposit candy. That part, at least, was not unlike a typical Halloween.

"The event not only lifted the morale of the kids, but it helped the parents as well," Kelly said. "Even people in the shelter without kids, their faces just lit up."

The Mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano, arrived just after the parade to pass out candy to the children, but the hype was lost on six-year-old Zionia. She was busy looking through her bag as soon as the mayor added more candy.

While she was doing that, I ask, "What was your favorite part of today?" 

"Umm... that you all gave us candy," she says thoughtfully.

I shrug. That's to be expected from a six-year-old.

"Look!" she says to me and points her finger to the wall behind me.

I turn, and she gives me a kiss on the cheek.

That was unexpected.