Stu Helps People Find Hope after Hurricane Ida
By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca
“When you’re in a shelter, you have to overcome the overwhelming sense of hopelessness. People have lost everything,” says Stu Coulson, who heads a team of mental health support volunteers for the Red Cross. He’s currently deployed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, supporting those affected by Hurricane Ida.
“We’re working with people who are living through the worst time of their life. Being depressed, stressed and scared are normal feelings when you’ve gone through this type of trauma,” says Coulson. “Mental health is focused on understanding emotions like these.”
During his 16-year tenure as a Red Cross volunteer, Coulson has worked with thousands of evacuees after a natural disaster.
“First, I help them understand the things they can do – sleep, eat and drink water – to get to a place where they can handle things,” he says. “Then, I listen to their worries and concerns. A lot of people feel better just by talking to someone who cares.”
A week after Hurricane Ida made landfall, people are just starting to learn about the wind and water damage to their homes and communities. The storm is the fifth-most-powerful hurricane to hit the U.S., leaving many communities underwater and about a million homes and businesses without electricity for days.
Coulson says: “We spend a lot of time making recovery plans. We take it one day at a time. The Red Cross helps with that process, whether it is finding a clean-up kit or a financial boost. We’re just trying to share the load. Eventually, life will return to normalcy.”
Living and working for weeks with people displaced by a natural disaster takes a toll on the volunteers as well.
“For some, it is overwhelming to be surrounded by people who are hurting. If they don’t get time to talk with someone about how they are feeling, release their stress or remember to sleep, then they won’t be able to do their jobs,” says Coulson.
A retired school counselor from Northern Iowa, Coulson finds balance by working with kids: “Kids don’t lose hope. They play. They lift us up.”
Coulson received his first call from the Red Cross just days before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. They needed mental health support for volunteers and asked him to join them. Coulson didn’t have long to make up his mind. He quickly made arrangements with his boss, did a few hours of training and jumped on a plane to head south.
“That first deployment was a life-changing experience. I got to work with a group of amazing, big-hearted, talented individuals who give it all they got,” he says. “Every deployment I go on I get more passion to do more good work. That’s what kept me in it for 16 years.”
Now that he’s retired it is easier for him to make time for volunteering. But he knows he can’t do it alone.
“I want to give a shout out to the Red Cross families who are supporting their loved ones on deployment by keeping things going at homem," he says. "My wife is picking up my work, taking care of the grandkids and mowing the lawn. The people we left at home are the reason why we can be here helping.”
If you are interested in helping people during or after a disaster, learn more at redcross.org/volunteer.