Story by Mary VanderGoot, ARC Greater Grand Rapids, RFL Casework Manager and Instructor
Many Red Cross volunteers “wear two hats.” I am one of them. I am a psychologist recruited by my local chapter when Disaster Services needed more mental health workers. I only became acquainted with International Services when, while chatting informally with other staff, I was asked to help interview clients for Restoring Family Links. Prior to that time I knew nothing about International Services even though the office I used was just down the hall from theirs.
Over time, I have become more involved with International Services and less involved with Disaster Services. Nevertheless I still get an occasional call that a mental health worker is needed for a shelter. Recently that happened for an apartment fire. As I was circulating among clients who were eating pizza and waiting for caseworkers to process their forms, I noticed a group clustered around a woman who was clearly distressed. I could hear that she was not speaking English. She and her family were recently resettled refugees.
As I sat with them for a while, the stories they shared with me were about events far more disruptive of their lives than the apartment fire. They had endured war, left home when their town was burning, and lost track of family and friends because they were never able to return to their neighborhood. Although the apartment fire that had sent them to a Red Cross shelter had not resulted in injury, loss of life, or separation from family, it had brought back to mind memories of devastating losses.
The first order of business at the shelter was to be calmly present with this family and make sure they had food, clothing, and shelter for the following days. Nevertheless, the short time I had to be with them also provided a natural opening for telling about the services of Restoring Family Links. Sometime later, they made an appointment to begin a family search.
My own experience has convinced me that the first place to get the word out about Restoring Family Links is at the chapter. In order to do this, we are working our way through the contact list for all personnel. We want to be sure everyone knows who we are and what we do in Restoring Family Links. We are also preparing a packet of information that can go into the toolkits other departments take to disaster sites, Red Cross shelters, and community events. The packet has envelopes containing a brochure, a business card, and an invitation to contact us for help reconnecting with family. The front of the envelope has a referral card that our colleagues may fill out with their clients and return to us in RFL so that we may reach out to these individuals.
Clients who come to our Red Cross chapter for help after a disaster or for other services are sometimes the same clients who need assistance finding families members with whom they have lost contact. It’s all about making colleagues in other programs aware of RFL services so they can help pass the word along.