Red Cross Chaplain, Cynthia Olson, packs her bags, Nov. 6, before catching a flight to New Jersey, a small angel pin on her shoulder. She wears one every day. For the next two weeks she will provide emotional and spiritual support to the loved ones of those killed in hurricane Sandy. More than 110 deaths have been confirmed. She doesn't know where she will be sleeping but knows she will see tears and that she will softly speak the words "Angels be with me," as she faces the disaster.
Olson is a full-time hospice worker who "can manage well in the face of death," she says. Most people just need to talk through their loss and have someone to listen. "It's a work of the heart," she says. "It's actually standing in awe of the other and how they cope, how they journey, how they live their life in community with one another."
Olson is the last of 65 local Red Cross people to be deployed to the disaster zone. More will go if they are needed. Chaplains are sent when the death toll of a disaster is high. "When you lose a loved one that adds a who new level of stress for people who are already experiencing a loss."
During a phone interview Nov. 9, Olson said she was volunteering at a the Camp Freedom shelter in New Jersey. It currently cares for 150 people and they are expecting another 500 to arrive soon. She walks around and talks with those who want to talk. She's listening to incredible stories, praying with those who want to. She gave communion yesterday. She helped find a missing blue-headed parrot and black and white miniature poodle for a family. Two of the family members had special needs and their animals help calm them. She found the animals in an animal rescue shelter and was able to assure the family that the pets were safe. Every day is different for her.
When people come into the shelter they are initially shell-shocked and don't want to be there but then they begin to change. "I am so touched by how they have evolved in patience and wisdom."
Next week, once the coroner's reports come out she and a small group of Chaplains will divide the list of the deceased and reach out to their families one by one. They will either meet with them in their home, if they still have one, or meet at a shelter. During these visits they will offer condolences, listen and connect them with services they may need.
They do not give advice unless asked. "Mostly people just want to talk and be heard. They just want reassurance that they're not alone."
Do you know someone who gives themselves to helping others? Please suggest your community hero for the I Care column by emailing Autumn Payne at firstname.lastname@example.org.