The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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November 21, 2012

Tornado ‘caregivers’ still working hard, still needing support after 18 months

JOPLIN, Mo. — Staff members at the Lafayette House in Joplin have been working harder than usual since the May 2011 tornado.

Clients have been staying at the shelter longer because of a lack of affordable housing, and they are seeking longer treatments for drug and alcohol issues, clinical director Rebekah Oehring said. There also has been a rise in domestic violence cases resulting from post-tornado stress and trauma, she said.

Working that closely with such rough issues can take a toll on those who are providing support, and Oehring said that’s why she has been conscious of the mental and emotional health of the staff.

SECONDARY TRAUMA

“One of the biggest parts for us is hearing all the stories and the need we saw to provide support to our staff,” Oehring said. “We set up different things to make sure they were OK emotionally (because) dealing with secondary trauma can be very hard on some of the counselors.”

That kind of support is exactly what Dan King is trying to promote, 18 months after the May 22, 2011, tornado ripped through Joplin. King is chairman of the Emotional/Spiritual Subcommittee of Joplin’s Long-Term Recovery Committee, a collection of local agencies, organizations and faith-based groups that assists survivors with disaster-related needs.

As its name suggests, the subcommittee focuses on the emotional and spiritual well-being of the community, giving particular attention not only to the survivors of the tornado but also to those who have acted as their caregivers.

“We understand that basically everyone in Joplin was affected by the tornado, so we service wider than just those directly affected by the tornado,” King said. “We’re trying to do what we can to help that group (in the caregiver role).”

To help caregivers — such as counselors, church pastors and those volunteering with relief agencies — cope with their role in tornado recovery, the subcommittee has sponsored and assisted with a handful of seminars that have focused on dealing with fatigue, King said.

Even at the 18-month mark, committee members remain concerned about compassion fatigue, King said. Compassion fatigue, also called secondary traumatic stress disorder or burnout, can occur when caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, which can lead to destructive behaviors, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, a California-based organization.

King is keeping his eye on that group because it has been so instrumental in Joplin’s recovery over the past year and a half, he said. For example, individuals working with the Long-Term Recovery Committee, in which participation is voluntary and unpaid, assisted more than 9,000 families, served 47,000 meals and distributed 3,500 tons of goods to survivors in the year after the tornado.

“It’s just been amazing, the response and the amount of care that’s gone out and the amount of hours that local people have contributed and given to the effort,” King said. “It’s hard to talk about because you can’t imagine what it would be like without the caregivers. Especially the churches, what we call the faith-based community, have been a big part of the recovery.”

He’s talking about people like Lowell Lane, who dropped by the Joplin Family Worship Center just a few days after the tornado to ask pastor Daniel Wermuth how he could help. Wermuth said he knew of volunteers who were coming to Joplin to assist with relief efforts, but he had nowhere for them to stay.

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