Shine a Light: Coping With Disaster

I heard the news, as I seem to hear most breaking news these days, on Facebook.  My Missouri friends were postings their concerns, fears and stunned sadness about the deadly tornado that ripped through the historic city on Route 66.

One friend posted: “Many landmarks in Joplin are gone; it’s disorienting and emotions such as sadness or anger are too simple for what’s happened here.”

At least 122 people died and 1,500 people are still missing.  Add to that the numbers from the destruction of last night’s round of tornadoes and, of course, the damage done by the Mississippi River’s deep waters and it’s pretty evident: it’s been a truly tragic spring.

Thousands of Midwesterners are dealing with staggering stress.

And that’s where Kathleen Whalen comes into this story; she helps communities deal with the stress brought on by disasters. She is a senior psychosocial advisor for Save the Children

When disaster strikes around the world, Save the Children is there to save lives with food, medical care and education and remains to help communities rebuild through long-term recovery programs. “We show up after the first responders, after the pieces are picked up but life is still in turmoil,” she says.

Kathleen is a New Orleanian who worked with Save the Children as the psychosocial program manager for Katrina response immediately after Hurricane Katrina and was instrumental in developing resiliency-building curriculum for children in grades K-8, a stress management/resiliency building curriculum for teachers and childcare staff and a disaster preparedness program.

“Katrina provided the opportunity to do the work I do now, “ she says. “Being here on the ground was an eye-opening experience. I got the sense that many of the disaster response teams knew how to deal with developing countries, but didn’t know how to deal with a developed country. If you are dealing with a real functioning city, you don’t have to go back to square one. I hope I bring that attitude and insight to places I go to now.”

Though she hasn’t been asked to Joplin, there is a chance she will be.  Last month she was in Alabama helping people cope with the tumult tornadoes caused in those communities and earlier this year, she made a 3-week visit to Christchurch, New Zealand. “New Zealand was humbling because you realize that an earthquake has no season, no predictors, no warnings,” she says.” It is so hard to rebuild their lives, because parents are afraid to let their children out of their sights, schools are afraid to go on fieldtrips. They don’t know when disaster might hit again.”

Kathleen’s primary job is with Partnership for Youth Development, where she is the director of professional development.  Partnership loans Kathleen to Save the Children whenever she is needed. “It’s called a secondment and was a new term to me, but it’s an arrangement that works for both organizations.”

Kathleen knows she carries with her all the lessons we learned from Katrina. She hopes it gives her service more validity. “I really want to help people realize they already have strengths and show them how their strengths can and will help them survive.”

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