Runner and social worker Erin Wertheimer had only completed her beginning classes as a Red Cross volunteer when she found herself in the midst of the chaos Hurricane Sandy wrought in New York. A licensed clinical social worker and new Red Cross volunteer, Erin was in New York City for the marathon and found herself questioning whether a marathon was what New York really needed at the time. “We were feeling a lot of guilt, just like, how can we go running through these neighborhoods where everyone has lost power, and they have nothing?” she said.
When the race was cancelled, Erin banded with other runners who were in town for the race, and put her energy towards helping those in need. Upon entering some of the communities, she found that although the shelters she encountered were well- stocked with food, water and clothing, mental health services were in high demand. As a result, Erin spent time in the hard-hit Staten Island area, offering her skills and background as a social worker to those navigating the psychological trauma of the disaster.
Erin is a recent Red Cross volunteer who has been in practice for seven years as a mental health professional and is currently working at Aurora Mental Health. Among the victims she helped in Staten Island was a woman weathered the storm in her home, where she’d lived for 20 years. “She just refused to leave her house,” Erin said, “which is totally understandable, but really, nobody could live there. It was completely damaged.” As a social worker, Erin was able to assist the woman, who was also trying to find a lost pet amid the wreckage. “She wasn’t as bad as I was expecting,” she said, “but you could tell there was a lot of shock and trauma that she went through.”
Erin observed that mental health services are still desperately needed in areas affected by the hurricane. That is one of the needs Red Cross teams are working to address, as trained mental health workers hit the streets alongside Safe and Well workers and caseworkers, going door-to-door to check on residents. It takes time, and a lot of footwork. “These people are walking around experiencing these horrific events, there’s such a need,” Erin said.
Erin says she is hoping to contribute her services again as soon as her formal volunteer training is complete – to hopefully deploy as part of a formal Red Cross disaster mental health team.