By Y. Hope Osborn
I glance out my apartment’s glass patio doors and see dark, angry clouds billowing by just over the top of the buildings of my apartment complex. Though the weather has expressed extremes of temperature and, therefore, weather, it is strange to see such violent and alarming thunderstorm clouds.
I step outside and am surprised that the clouds are not of moisture but of smoke, and they are coming from somewhere very close. Across the complex parking lot, an apartment building is a roaring blaze of intensely hot flames! Despite the heroic efforts of the firemen on scene, the sky-reaching, water-resistant flames destroy the homes and property of all the apartment building’s tenants.
Terrible losses like losing lives—people and pets, losing home and losing what made it home—family heirlooms, photo albums, electronics, furniture and so on distress disaster victims, overwhelming them with grief and fear for their future.
When the grief, fear and distress are too much to handle alone, clients are referred to a mental health worker, such as Carolyn Harpole, Ph.D., who volunteers her time, experience and education to offer support.
Carolyn is sensitive to the need of the client who may be either open or wary, “Some of the people, they just open up immediately, and sometimes, it takes a little talking … [to] get people talking about their emotions …Some of them it takes a little time to feel comfortable with me as a person on the phone.”
Carolyn wants to know if they are taking care of themselves. She wants to know, “some ways you are trying to cope with the stress,” such as sleeping, resting and doing what helps you deal with your disaster.
As a Red Cross volunteer, when Carolyn isn’t on the phone or on site as a lead, covering both Arkansas and Oklahoma, she teaches and oversees other mental health workers and learns new mental health care information. As an individual, when Carolyn isn’t volunteering with the Red Cross, she keeps tabs on some of the patients of the practice she retired from, creates cards and travels with her husband. Her favorite trip so far was to Australia and New Zealand, which was quite a different, unique experience.
When I ask Carolyn about the best part of being a mental health worker, she says she has two answers—one answer from before a disaster she worked this year and another answer for after the disaster. This year, during the flooding in Little Rock, AR, she took off in a Red Cross vehicle from Tulsa, OK. Before she could reach Little Rock, Carolyn had a car accident that totaled the vehicle and put her in the hospital. The hospital cleared her to work with plenty of rest, and offered the opportunity to return home, she chose to continue to the site.
Before the accident, Carolyn appreciated most the response of the clients, “They’ll come up and hug us and thank us.”
After the accident, Carolyn appreciated most the care she received from fellow staff, “They were so wonderful to me. I couldn’t have been in better hands. I had everything I needed. I got a private room and a special cot beside my workplace. I mean they were wonderful.”
Carolyn’s answers show how much the Red Cross values not only the client’s well-being, but also their staff’s and volunteer’s well-being.
Right now, Carolyn is excited that the Red Cross opened its doors this year to a broader range of mental health worker experience. Now you don’t have to be licensed to volunteer as a mental health worker. You may be a retired psychologist, school counselor or a psychology major in college. Carolyn can really use the help; so, if you are interested, go to redcross.org/volunteer.
“If you’re looking to help people, if you want something that’s never dull, if you enjoy going places and if disasters don’t bother you, I would say it’s the perfect fit.”
One of Carolyn’s “never dull moments” she shared for potential mental health worker volunteers is her talk with an 88-year old woman who said she was in a bar with family. Not only that, this elderly lady was the designated driver!