By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca
During fire season in Iowa and Nebraska, a devastating scenario happens several times a month: A family stands in their driveway in the early morning hours, still in their pajamas, watching firefighters try to put out the flames that have engulfed their home. They made it out unharmed, but all their things—their clothing, their electronics and even their car—are inside the burning building. There are flashing lights and emergency personnel in their yard, along with an American Red Cross Disaster Action Team, who gathers their contact information.
Then, the family gets a call from a Red Cross Recovery caseworker.
“In my first call with a client, I introduce myself and ask how they are doing. Generally, the client will open up about their current situation,” says Betty Jo Nizzi, a Red Cross Recovery caseworker who has been volunteering for just over a year. “My follow-up questions center around ‘Do you have a safe place to stay? For how long? Do you have food? What other needs do you have?’”
After going through a disaster like a home fire, many people make it out with just the clothes on their back.
You have to be a good listener. You try to visualize their situation and what they need,” says Cindy Fullerton, who for two years has used her experience as an HR professional while volunteering as a Recovery Caseworker for the Red Cross.
With the basic facts in hand, a caseworker like Cindy or Betty Jo immediately gets to work identifying where their clients can get what they need. Luckily, caseworkers have access to a database of services in each county, like food pantries, Goodwill, Salvation Army, legal aid and even small emergency funds for a hotel. But, individuals who go through a fire or natural disaster often don’t just have physical needs.
Cindy explains: “It is an incredibly emotional experience. Clients are very shaken and devastated about their losses. They are often in a state of shock. It takes more than a day for the trauma to settle in.”
The Red Cross has specialized teams that can help with different phases of recovery, like mental health or spiritual services.
“Each client is different. What we want is for them to be in a good place that they can go on and have a productive life after an incident,” says Connie Richards, a Recovery Team Lead, 10-year Red Cross veteran volunteer and an EMT.
Depending on the level of need, a caseworker can stay in touch with a client for a few weeks. Although caseworkers do everything they can for their clients, they don’t make plans for them. Working virtually over the phone, caseworkers give their clients the information and tools they need for each step of the recovery journey.
“We try to give people hope and let them know we care and want to assist and provide support,” says Betty Jo. “Many clients tell us they appreciate knowing someone cares enough to call, listen and support them during their recovery process.”
Sometimes, caseworkers have to get creative to help their clients. For example, earlier this year, Cindy worked on a large apartment fire in Boone, Iowa, where about 25 families became homeless overnight. This was one of her biggest challenges.
Apartment fire in Boone Iowa. February 2021.
The Red Cross put everyone up in a local hotel and Hy-Vee provided three meals a day. Cindy stayed in touch with the families until they had what they needed to move on. The community came together to help too. The owner of the apartment building helped relocate families to new apartments and gave them back their deposits. The hotel employees made the families feel at home and always helped put Cindy in touch with them. And, citizens donated needed supplies to get them back on their feet.
“Recovery casework takes time. It surprises many people how long it takes. But in the end, it feels good to make sure that people are in a good place after a fire or disaster. The rewards for helping are huge,” says Connie.
She encourages anyone interested to join her team: “Try it and see what your niche is. We’d be thrilled to have more recovery workers. Fire season is usually in the winter, and it hasn’t slowed down yet.”
Each year, the Red Cross responds to an average of more than 60,000 disasters, the vast majority of which are home fires.
“Some of the qualities needed by a caseworker are kindness, compassion, and empathy. If you have these qualities, it is easy to go the extra mile for our clients,” says Betty Jo.
Learn more about volunteer opportunities like Recovery casework at the American Red Cross serving Nebraska and Iowa and considering giving your time and talents to your community.