The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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June 14, 2012

'Trained listeners' continue to help tornado victims

JOPLIN, Mo. — They’re known for their blue shirts.

Bright teal blue, worn by 70 people who, in the aftermath of the May 2011 tornado, fanned out across an otherwise bleak destruction zone to find those who needed emotional first aid.

Seven days a week since June 20, 2011, these “crisis workers,” as they call themselves, have knocked on doors, handed out fliers, attended memorial events and set up booths at Northpark Mall.

“I was at Taco Bell on Range Line, and a guy came up to me and said, ‘I need to talk to you,’” said Tom Tiegreen, a 68-year-old retiree who signed on after receiving an email from his church. “I was wearing the shirt, and he knew what it represented.”

What the shirts represented was Healing Joplin, a grant-funded program operated through Freeman Health System’s Ozark Center. The crisis workers were recognized at a luncheon Thursday at the Ramsay Building in downtown Joplin for their contributions during the past year.

This round of grants concludes at the end of June, and Ozark Center has applied for additional funding to continue the program. If a grant extension is approved, Healing Joplin would be able to operate at half its staffing level until September. The $3.8 million grant that funded Healing Joplin through June came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

When Andrea Holseth saw two women in the blue shirts on her front porch last October, she saw them as a possible solution to her son’s struggles. Her family, which includes her husband, Ed Holseth, and two children, 16-year-old Gavin Williamson and 7-year-old Brier Holseth, survived the tornado in their bathroom at 2424 S. Tyler Ave.

Although they walked out uninjured, the home had shifted six inches off its foundation and was ruined. Gone, too, were the homes of grandparents on both sides of the family, along with their car. Also destroyed was Joplin High School, where Williamson had completed his freshman year and was an athlete.

His mother said that immediately after the storm, the teen “became a man” through his actions in tending to the family’s needs. But when she drove him to see the school and baseball field where he had thrived, he broke down.

“It was heartbreaking,” Holseth said. “He lost everything he knew.”

In the following months, it was Williamson who would have the hardest time coping with his emotions. The family, living with friends and borrowing vehicles, was in limbo and lacked focus.

Finally, the family settled in a rental house. But in his sophomore year, Williamson’s grades slipped. He wouldn’t discuss the tornado, and he became louder and angrier.

Then the two women wearing the blue shirts arrived.

“I knew it was Healing Joplin,” said Williamson’s mother. “I shoved him out the door to talk with them and said, ‘I’ll be in here. You go talk.’”

The crisis workers, Stephanie Jordon and Tracy Eck, were making one of the program’s thousands of door-to-door stops.

Deborah Fitzgerald, the program’s director, described the workers as “trained listeners” who also could connect those they contacted with needed community resources.

They have visited homeless shelters, points of distribution, nursing homes, day care centers, businesses, service agencies and first responders. They have been present at the Walk of Unity on the tornado anniversary and other community events. They have done crisis debriefing for agencies, hospitals, schools, churches and the Joplin Housing Authority.

One of their approaches was to use Skills for Psychological Recovery, which is a worksheet approach to break down overwhelming loss into step-by-step actions so residents can get back on track.

“We also helped normalize emotions, to help them see that they were having normal responses, and sometimes you can just see them breathe a sigh of relief. It’s like, ‘I’m not the only one who’s feeling this way,’” said Teri Nunnally, a Healing Joplin crisis worker who signed up after surviving the tornado while on duty at St. John’s Regional Medical Center.

To date, Healing Joplin workers have spoken to more than 28,000 people, which includes 8,123 repeat visits, and have contacted 3,328 people in group settings and 5,141 people in family settings.

At Andrea Holseth’s house, they made repeat visits to her son and now are considered family friends.

“When you’re working through your own emotions, you don’t know how to fix someone else’s emotions,” Holseth said. “You have an entire family you have to be strong for. It did help for them to come, to continue to come — not just come once. Sometimes you need that friendly face that doesn’t have to be nice to you, they’re genuinely being nice to you.”

In the nonthreatening atmosphere of the front porch, her son opened up to Eck and Jordon, and in turn they built a rapport with Holseth.

She described Williamson today as “less angry, less frustrated.” His grades rebounded.

“I think his focus will start coming back,” she said. “And he’s playing baseball this summer for the Joplin Miners.”

Fitzgerald said she believes what most Joplin residents needed in the aftermath of the tornado was not professional mental help, but “someone to walk alongside them.”

Holseth agreed.

“This little family of four is cared about by somebody,” she said. “I know there are people all over like us. I hope they met somebody like them, somebody wearing blue shirts.”

By the numbers

HEALING JOPLIN’S community crisis workers span in age from 20 to 68, and they have a range of career experiences. At the program’s peak, there were 70 of them. Currently, there are 55.

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