2 minute readDisaster, Volunteers
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Red Cross Mental Health Volunteer Helps Hurricane Ian Survivors Cope

“We work as a team, and everyone jumps in to help.”

From Michigan to Florida, Red Cross volunteer Kimberly McKenzie traveled on her third deployment to help people affected by Hurricane Ian in the southwest Florida area. Kimberly started volunteering for the Red Cross in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. Now, she serves as a disaster mental health specialist when she deploys to disasters outside her home and local Red Cross chapter.

At home, Kimberly is a clinical social worker and a first responder helping patients with drug-abuse challenges and chronic mental health disorders. As a Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteer, Kimberly uses her expertise to comfort and reassure people impacted by disasters big and small who may need a little extra support to cope with their difficult circumstances.

Natural disasters like Hurricane Ian affect far more than the infrastructure and buildings damaged by wind, rain, and floods. People living through disasters can also be harmed, even though those injuries may not be apparent to others.

People who have been hit by a disaster may have intense anxiety, fear, and depression after being displaced from their homes and thrust into the chaos of post-disaster clean-up and recovery. Some disaster victims may have pre-existing mental health challenges that become magnified after disaster strikes. That’s when Disaster Mental Health volunteers like Kimberly step in to help people process their emotions.

Disaster mental health workers sit with people who are suffering, listen to them, and work to identify potential solutions for their unique challenges. They help clients to understand the links between the emotional and physical symptoms of experiencing a disaster while thinking holistically of the client’s well-being.

Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Specialist Kim McKenzie pauses to pet a shelter client’s dog named Sadie as she makes her rounds in the shelter.

While working in a Red Cross shelter in Orlando, Kimberly learned of a man in severe distress. He could not breathe, his lips were blue, and he indicated with his hands that he was choking. Kimberly’s first-responder training kicked in as she relates, “You don’t think, you just do.” Circling behind the choking man, she performed abdominal thrusts and back blows until a piece of food dislodged, and he could breathe again. She saved his life.

“We work as a team, and everyone jumps in to help. If it weren’t me in that situation, someone else would have been there for him,” said Kimberly of her pride as a Red Cross volunteer. “It may seem chaotic at times, but at the end of the day, we take such good care of people and such good care of the community that I can’t imagine being part of any other organization. I’m a Red Cross volunteer for life.”

If you’d like to join Kimberly in making a difference for people during times of crisis, learn more about our urgently needed volunteer opportunities here.


This story was originally published on the South Florida Red Cross’ blog.