Saturday, November 17, 2012

Superstorm Sandy:Crisis Counseling, Kindness, and Hope

I'm in New Jersey on my second to last day of volunteer crisis counseling. Yesterday, I finally had a chance to take the books to the distribution center. Here's a photo of the books. There are actually more boxes of books than you can see because there are some behind the big boxes. I purposely hadn't opened any, one for ease of transportation, and two because I wanted everyone to see that people from all over the country had sent them.

Once the volunteer who unloaded my car had all the books in his cart, he started to roll them away. I offered to help him open the boxes. "No, Doc," he said in a thick New Jersey accent. "I have plenty of volunteers who can do that. But there's only one you who can counsel people."

Disappointed, I almost stopped him because I really wanted to see all the books. But I would have lingered, seeing who'd sent them, examining covers and reading the back blurbs, starting the stories, and probably coveting more than a few. So I left.

Then when I got home to Bill's late last night, I had another three boxes waiting. And five more tonight. I'll make another stop to the distribution center tomorrow after my last group and before I leave to fly home. The last two nights were dark and cold, and I quickly loaded the boxes in the car because I know I'll dash out of here in the mornings. So I didn't look at who sent them. But I'm VERY grateful.

Today I did a group at the Senior Center in Sayreville, where FEMA and the Red Cross are set up. As can be typical after disasters, neither organization knew about the distribution center for people to get free food and clothing (and now books.) When a woman told me she had to use a portion of her rent money to buy food and diapers, I told her about the distribution center where I knew they had more diapers than they knew what to do with. She was so happy to learn she could receive free food, clothing, and diapers, and she could return another day if she ran out. After that I made sure the Red Cross volunteers who greeted people and said good-bye to them had the directions to the distribution center and told everyone about it.

Just as I was about to leave the building to go back to Our Lady of Victories Church, where I have done the majority of my groups, a Red Cross volunteer came up to me and mentioned that there was a man who'd lost everything and was having a difficult (and thus emotional) time navigating the bureaucratic hoops that disaster victims often have to jump through to receive assistance.

I approached the man, (I'll make up a name and call him John) introduced myself, and asked if he'd like to speak to me. John was tall and wide, with dark circles under his brown eyes. He wore shorts and sandals on a day that I had on a coat and boots. His expression lit up with eagerness, and he said a strong, "yes!" Then John asked me to wait while he left to do some paperwork, promising to return in ten or twenty minutes. I said I'd wait for him.

John returned. We went to an empty room, and he started talking. Very quickly, I could tell that this was a man who life had dealt some very hard knocks, the latest one being Sandy. He and his 17 year-old son were left with only the clothes on their backs. John was on disability from an injury and didn't have resources to replace what he'd lost. He'd been wearing the same clothes for days.

Early on in our discussion, after I'd said something to validate his experience, John said in a tone of wonder, "You've only been talking to me for 10 minutes, and you understand what I'm going through!"
I could tell he hadn't received much compassion in his life.

John told me a story that touched me and also broke my heart--how when the storm first started, he took $100 of his own money, bought candles, and went door to door at the hotel where he was staying and gave one to everyone.

His son said to him, "Dad, why are you doing this when no one cares about you?"

"Because it makes me feel good," John replied.

I hated to think of that young man (who'd been abandoned by his mother at age six) already having a world view that no one cares.

John and I had a very productive session. He was very open to my feedback and suggestions. I connected him with Catholic Charities for some free counseling and with the church for some spiritual support. At the end, he told me how much it meant to him that I had approached him, that I had listened, and that I had cared. The act of kindness was as important to him as the counseling.

As we were walking out, I told John I wanted him to take his son to the distribution center. In addition to getting food and clothing, I told him to search out the books, and I explained how people from all over the country had sent them to me, and I'd taken them to the shelter. I said I knew there were some science fiction and horror stories (thanks to the author-team at Amazon and also to Seventh Star Press) that I was sure a 17 year-old would love to read. "Yah, he likes those kind of books," his father said.

"Be sure you tell him that those books come from people who care," I said.

John thanked me, almost in tears.

As we parted, I hoped that the help I'd given John would indeed make a difference. Even more, I prayed that his son would pick out some books and, in so doing, would not just receive stories, but hope. And maybe, just maybe, he'd come to believe that there are people who do care.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Superstorm Sandy, Trauma Recovery Counseling

As I write this, I'm in Sayreville, New Jersey, doing volunteer crisis counseling for the victims of Superstorm Sandy. I arrived at midnight on the 11th and am staying until the evening of the 18th.

Before I came here, I did a book drive, contacting my writers' groups and asking for donations to be sent to where I'm staying. I knew from experience that people in shelters needed the distraction that a good book can provide. I promised that if I had the time and energy, I'd write some blog posts to keep let people know how it was going. So this post in about keeping that promise

First of all, I I want to acknowledge that I've been welcomed with open arms. People are very touched that someone would come all the way from California on their own accord to help out. My friend, Bill, is housing me and driving me around. Through him I was networked into Catholic Charities. (Did you know Catholic Charities helps people who aren't Catholic? I didn't.) Monday, day one for me, was spent in meeting the people from Catholic Charities and determining where my services could be best utilized. Yesterday started with a meeting of all the agencies in the area who are working to help the victims, including the Red Cross, FEMA, Catholic Charities, United Way, and other government and local organizations. During and after the storm, many of these organizations had to deal with the loss of power or perhaps even damage to their own buildings, but the staff worked hard to help others, and managed to get creative and still accomplish a great deal both for their clients and the general community.

The purpose of the meeting was to learn what everyone was doing and to find a way to enhance the communication between the various agencies. I was there to talk about the free trauma recovery groups I was going to do, and also the group I wanted to organize for the people in the room and anyone else who's worked for one of the organizations serving the victims.

After the meeting, I went to the Red Cross shelter at Rutgers. Earlier in the day Shirley Hailstock had dropped off boxes of books and tote bags, and by the time I got there, people were happily reading. I've been receiving boxes of books (and know I have more coming). Tomorrow, I'll donate them to the distribution center.

I did my first group at the Red Cross shelter. By this time, many of the people who'd originally taken refuge there had moved on to live with families or friends, or found local housing. Those who stayed, had no where else to go. Some had been homeless before the storm and were coping with other issues such has not having proper medication. These people have had a chance to have their lapsed prescriptions renewed, and staff members are trying to transition them into local programs or at least a better situation. So they are receiving the support and attention that they normally don't have. One man commented with awe that he'd been taken to the Rutgers football game.

I also had five Red Cross workers join the group, so I had a mixed "bag" of people. Once I started the group, I felt this inner sense of relief. Even though I'd been "helping" since I'd been in NJ, I finally was doing what I'd really come here to do--aid people in their healing process. My crisis groups are usually a mix of education and sharing, and this one was no different, although I had to sometimes simplify things. But afterwards, I had a lot of feedback that the group was helpful--which was good to hear considering I had to meet very differing needs.

After working at the shelter, I had a break from thinking about the work when Bill, who graduated from Rutgers, took me to a popular restaurant and then to his favorite bar. If you know me personally, you know I'm not a bar person, but this was fun because Bill knew the staff, and we had interesting conversations and lots of laughs. The perfect way to escape for a while.

Today I started my first group at St. Mary of the Victories, and it was to help people, such as the staff of Catholic Charities, who'll be working with the victims. This group was both a training for them in what to say and do to help people with their emotional recovery, but also a place where they could share their own feelings and take a little personal time. I enjoyed working with such a great group of dedicated, caring individuals, knowing that they'd take what they received from their experience with me and pass it on.

Ironically, I gave them a lecture in self-care, but hadn't taken the time for breakfast, and then the group went so long it overlapped with group 2, so I didn't have lunch. However, my excuse was I squeezed in a little workout at Bill's gym, which is in itself self-care, and I did grab a protein drink and add a vitamin packet to it. And I had a protein bar in my purse for after the group. So I was doing self-care, just maybe not as well as I should have.

Catholic Charities has supplied me with a car, and Bill programed his GPS for me. So I'll be able to drive where needed.

The rectory at the church has a guest suite, and I was able to take a nap and join the priest for dinner. He shared with me that he was able to get the message for my groups to the community information network. We have them scheduled every day, including Sunday. I took a picture of the television. They missed the 12:30 Saturday group which is scheduled at the Senior Center. If you know of anyone in the area, encourage them to attend.

I'm sitting on the bed in my guest suite, quickly typing this before heading out to my 7:00 group. Please excuse any typos, missing words, and other mistakes because I'm not going to do my normal editing job.

I just wanted to express my thanks to everyone who's supported me, by praying or thinking positive thoughts, by sending books I can donate, or by being a member of this community and doing so much to help me out. I truly feel blessed to have the support so I can give to others.