We sat side by side-- a newly-trained female client caseworker and I, a disaster mental health volunteer--in a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. Next in line was a young survivor in his early 20's-- living in a local drug recovery center, who had lost his home, his girlfriend, his vehicle, and his job, in one of California's most devastating fires ever recorded.
I closed the door behind him as he took a seat. Shortly after he began, I reached for a bottle of water behind me, twisted off the cap, and handed it to him. He talked and drank, cried and talked, and drank some more. For an hour, he related details of wrong turns, the long road back to sanity and sobriety, and finally the fire. We listened hard. Afterward, I asked about a sponsor, 12-step meetings, his support system. The caseworker asked about housing plans and gave him information about government and community resources.
At the end, I gave him a blanket. I asked if he was hungry. “A little,” he admitted. I gave him a granola bar. I gave him a Disaster Distress Helpline brochure and the local crisis line number. He hugged me. He hugged her too.
“I noticed you take the cap off the water bottle", the caseworker said, after he left. "Why did you do that?" "You saw that?" I replied, surprised. "Well, survivors under great stress easily dehydrate. When you open the bottle, it gives them 'permission' to drink it now rather than later.“
"Ah, good one", she said, nodding and jotting notes. "Your eyes never left his as you took off the cap. And you sat forward when he started talking." I grinned. "Were you observing me the whole time?" "Of course I was!“ she laughed. “I've never seen anyone work in the field before. I could never do what you did."
I looked puzzled. "But you were doing it." Now she looked puzzled. "What do you think he'll remember from our interaction?" I asked. A few beats later, she responded. "I think he'll remember how you knew so much about what he was going through." "I'll bet you're wrong,” I replied. “I'll bet he'll remember next to nothing of what I said. What he'll remember is how we both made him feel. The water, the blanket, the snacks--there's a good chance he'll remember those also. But he won't forget your calm voice, the genuine smiles, the way he was deeply listened to, the way he was treated with dignity and respect. Never underestimate the power of those simple gestures. I promise you, those things are what people remember most about the Red Cross, in the end.”
“Maybe it's because those things look like hope.” She wrote that down, too.
I don't know what happened to him, of course. But I know that she's a compassionate, caring, client caseworker, yet another Red Cross hope-giver, who now twists the cap off the water bottle as she hands it to the next survivor.
Julie Holly, MSE, LPC, CCTP, is a licensed mental health professional by trade and she, serves her community and those across the country such as the South Carolina floods and California wildfires. In addition, she served on an Integrated Care Team which provides a team approach to physical, spiritual and emotional recovery after a disaster.
"You are a part of the permanent narrative of the worst day of their lives." - Julie Holly