Judy Rae

Dear Cassy: Volunteering for fire victims

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As the holidays approach many people volunteer to help others in their times of need. Helping others has a positive impact on our own mental health. It puts life in perspective and takes us out of our bubble of worries — if only for an hour or two.  

Most recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Palisades Charter School in Pacific Palisades as a disaster mental health team member with The Red Cross. This was one of four shelters opened in response to the horrific Woolsey fire.

Most Red Cross shelters are housed within public schools. Many coexist with the students if school is still in session. At Palisades Charter High School we were housed in a large gym. We protected the floor with tarps and put out over 40 cots. We made the cots up with blankets and sheets and provided disposable towels. These disposable towels are really just big paper towels. The blankets are thin and scratchy. We were very fortunate to have an abundance of donations from the local community. They donated plush blankets, towels and soft pillows. This comfort goes a long way.

We were also fortunate to receive plenty of donated food and toiletries. People coming to the shelter were as diverse as the communities. Many people came directly from work with no more than what they brought to work that day. Some were renting a guest house in Malibu and had no insurance. Some were college professors here on an international assignment and are now displaced with no family. Many were older adults without cell phones or the ability to connect with family. They were also without their medications and the local pharmacies in the area were closed.

As a mental health team member I was there to hear their stories and help them get a few of their basic needs met. Many continued to go to work each day, returning to the shelter each evening for a hot meal, a shower and a cot to sleep on.

One displaced woman had been through three fires in the past 10 years. She spoke of the loss and extreme hardship she has had to endure each time a fire raged through her community. She spoke of the looters who dig through the ashes of homes to take what few relics are left. She said this was more upsetting than the fires. “It feels like such a horrible violation,” she told me though tears.

I observed a kind of community emerging. People began sharing stories, updates on fire containment, and local and national resources. As devastating and destructive as the fires were, I was humbled to see how people support each other and persevere.

So while I was hearing stories of loss, calling uncles out of state, refilling prescriptions and sitting with a 90-year-old woman I realized I was getting way more than I was giving. I realized that volunteering has a far greater impact on me than the people I served.

I encourage you to look into volunteering during the holiday season or anytime throughout the year. Volunteering as a family can be especially rewarding. Depending on the ages of your children, there are many opportunities. This could become a cherished tradition. Over the past years my family has volunteered at shelters handing out food and cleaning up afterwards. It was a very rewarding experience for us all. There is an excellent website called VolunteerMatch.org. It matches you with opportunities that reflect your unique interests and abilities. You can choose from arts and culture, children and youth, computers and technology and other areas.

And of course The Red Cross has many opportunities and excellent training and support. They can be reached at redcross.org.

In crisis? Text 741741 for free crisis support 24/7.

For more information go to SouthBayFamiliesConnected.org

Liz Schoeben is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In 2017, she founded CASSY SoCal (cassysocal.org), which partners with the Palos Verdes Unified School District to provide students with comprehensive mental health services.

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