When disaster strikes, those affected often need more than food, clothing and shelter. Some need psychological help as well. That’s what Florida Gulf Coast University’s new initiative aims to provide.
The recently established Marieb College of Health & Human Services Community Relief Fund will support the creation of trained groups of students, faculty and staff to go into surrounding communities to deliver disaster relief, including the supplies and psychological first aid survivors need.
After a training session in late September, the first team went out with 11 students, four faculty members and one community volunteer. They distributed $1,000 worth of supplies and spent time talking with residents who were experiencing distress as a result of their experiences in Hurricane Irma and its aftermath. The team is planning another outreach project Dec. 8 at Everglades City School, which was severely impacted by Hurricane Irma.
The effort came about after the donation of $5,000 from David W. and Dr. Alise G. Bartley, who moved to Bonita Springs from Canton, Ohio three weeks before Irma struck. Alise Bartley is an educator, therapist, and part-time faculty member at FGCU, who spent two weeks volunteering to help counsel survivors of Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Miss.
She and her husband donated the first $5,000 and have pledged an additional $10,000 to match donations from other members of the community.
“We believe in this community and we want to be part of the solution for those who are struggling right now,” she says.
So what, exactly, is psychological first aid?
“One of the main premises is to meet the person where they are,” says FGCU counseling Associate Professor Abbe Finn, who has worked extensively in this field. “People react radically differently. You help them connect with their support system and help them to regain their balance.”
Some people respond by fighting – fighting for their own lives or those of others, for example. The stress often hits them later, after the emergency has passed and they begin to experience anxiety, insomnia or loss of appetite. Others may freeze immediately and be unable to do anything for themselves or their families.
Psychological first aid is short-term counseling geared to helping them get back on their feet and start moving forward.
After the hurricane, Alise Bartley was talking with other counseling faculty members and they came up with a plan to create these teams. They hope to conduct training sessions once a month or every other month and be ready when disasters such as hurricanes, fires or other emergencies strike.
By garnering community support for this project, “it will allow us to provide a longer-term response to the storm because we know some of the families are already in rough shape in the interior of the region – Immokalee, Lehigh. These families will have a much longer impact, especially those that were vulnerable to begin with,” says Professor Madelyn Isaacs, chair of the FGCU counseling department.
The group that went out into the community on Sept. 30 provided psychological first aid while also distributing items people in distress might need, things like fresh fruit, juice boxes, diapers, baby wipes, paper towels, cleaning products and personal items. Their intent is to broaden the effort to include volunteers from other specialties within the Marieb College as well.
The first team worked with the PACE Center for Girls, a not-for-profit that serves at-risk adolescent girls, as well as Gateway Elementary School in Fort Myers and Manatee Elementary in Naples.
Finn has extensive experience with psychological first aid, having worked with survivors on Wall Street following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, among other places, and has seen the good it can do.
“It’s intense but it’s part of what I love about it,” she says. “You’re completely engaged. You’re doing something.”
Mitch Cordova, dean of the Marieb College, says that “integral to the DNA of the Marieb College of Health & Human Services is our desire to support the Southwest Florida community in times of need whether it’s through direct health care services, servant leadership or philanthropic support. Our aspiration to create the Marieb College Community Relief Fund is an extension of our mission and truly represents the values and morals of our students, faculty, and staff and their passion in helping those in need.
“Establishing this fund will allow the Marieb College to further extend into our community in ways we haven’t done so previously in offering direct support and assistance to those who have suffered greatly from natural disasters recently, and any unforeseen events in the future. Helping those in need and making a small difference in peoples’ lives is critical to the educational preparation of our students.”