‘You feel very helpless sometimes,’ How the American Red Cross is stepping up mental & emotional support for its volunteers

Local News

A new mental health program born out of one tragedy is now expanding to help hundreds of volunteers

A new team for the American Red Cross that includes leaders from the Quad Cities is helping it’s first responders mentally and emotionally.

The Workforce, Wellness and Support team is about a year old.

Nine of the 21 mental health professionals on the virtual team are working with volunteers responding to the hurricane.

Tess Sheil leads the national team from right here in the Quad Cities.

You might see her at the scene of a disaster but her primary job for the American Red Cross is over the phone.

Sheil leads a virtual mental health team for volunteers on the ground.

The program started less than a year ago, after the deadly wildfires in Paradise, California.

“We found that many of the responders were really going through a lot on their own,” says Sheil, the mental health lead for the American Red Cross.

Sheil was virtually deployed for 162 days during the fires.

“That evolved into people saying, ‘This really was great, can we do this again?'” she says.

Now, the virtual team consists of 21 professionals across the country.

Members ask responders questions like, if they’re getting enough rest, enough to eat and if they have a buddy to talk to.

“You hear, certainly, overwhelming sadness,” says Sandy Keller, a Red Cross volunteer of three years.

Keller has been deployed five times, including the Las Vegas shooting back in 2017.

“I don’t think I had any idea what to expect,” Keller says.

She says it can be hard for a volunteer to bounce back from a response– especially when it’s a mass casualty.

“Sometimes I think what happens is when you’re there, you’re just caught up. You’re so incredibly busy and your adrenaline is going. It’s sort of after the fact you get home and you sort of think about some of the stories or you experience in a different way,” Keller says.

That’s why former school psychologist is now part of the mental health team.

Both she and Sheil say it’s extra support to keep volunteers going, tragedy after tragedy.

“It’s very exhausting, being able to console people. We’re here so that people can share with us those experiences,” Sheil says.

“You have to be able to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others,” Keller says.

The virtual mental health team also screens volunteers to decide when and where they should be deployed.

Some members are also on call 24-7, even when there isn’t a disaster.

They report all their data back to the national headquarters to keep improving volunteer experiences.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.