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After the Catastrophe: UB School of Social Work Students Help Victims Pick Up the Pieces as Red Cross Disaster Action Team Members

By Erin Maynard

Release Date: March 21, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Imagine for a moment that it's cold and dark; you're huddled together with your family in front of your house, having just watching it burn to the ground. You have ash in your hair, smoke in your lungs and every possession you own was just incinerated.

The fire department has done its job; the fire is out. But you realize that you literally only have the clothes on your back. You can't call your extended family; your cell phone is a melted pile of plastic. You can't take any money out of the bank to get a hotel room; your ATM card went up in smoke and you don't even have photo ID. You can't do anything other than blankly stare at the charred skeleton of what used to be your home and feel the tears course down your cheeks.

For 345 families in Erie and Niagara counties last year, this scenario was reality.

The people who start to make things better are the members of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT). The Red Cross is congressionally mandated to help people begin the recovery process, and that means responding to all sorts of disasters, from earthquakes to house fires.

"We're the first call the fire department makes," says Tara Hughes, disaster mental health advisor for New York. "They deal with the fire; we deal with the people."

And now, some of the DAT volunteers assisting people recovering from disasters are members of the University at Buffalo's School of Social Work.

Hughes, along with Diane E. Elze, PhD, director of the master of social work program, conceived the idea for a master's level class that would combine DAT training with a focus on mental health. Last year, "Responding to Disasters with Social Work Interventions" was born, and 24 UB students began their coursework this January.

De Mar McClain, a second-year UB School of Social Work student, is the first to have completed all the necessary training and paperwork. He is now waiting for an opportunity to apply what he has learned in the classroom to relief work in the community.

"De Mar has a huge amount of enthusiasm and eagerness," said Hughes. "He has the personality to deal with the chaos."

McClain learned how to deal with pressure and emergencies during his time in the 82nd Airborne Division, in particular his time overseas during Operation Desert Storm. He then used his GI Bill benefits, along with his Schomburg Fellowship award, to return to school and continue his spirit of volunteerism.

"I went into the service with humanity in mind; to do something greater," said McClain. "I'm becoming a social worker for the same reasons. Social work isn't an occupation for me; it's a way of life. It's an action word. I'm going to be doing more than just talking, just dictating how things need to be done. I'm going to be doing."

For McClain, the spirit of volunteerism that is so fundamental to the Red Cross operation is something that needs to be highlighted.

"My grandmother Harriet L. McClain raised me," said McClain. "I never saw her complain. She always helped out where she could, even if we were in bad circumstances ourselves. And when you look at the Red Cross, 95 percent of the organization is made up of volunteers. That just goes to show the goodness of people.

"Today's global economy is putting a straightjacket on us as a society. We tend to just focus on our nuclear family and its needs, and that mindset drastically changes how we treat one another. The people of the United States are so good about digging deep to help out during global disasters, but sometimes not so much in their own local communities. Volunteerism is absolutely essential. More people need to focus on that sort of ethical engagement with each other, and we can really transform society. I'll be a part of that any day."

In order to become a member of the DAT, McClain attended classes through the Red Cross that would give him (and his classmates) the specialized training in disaster response and psychological first aid necessary to meet the emergency needs of disaster victims. The nearly 30 hours of Red Cross instruction included shelter and service center simulations as well as lessons in client casework and assessment. Additionally, there are UB requirements for the "Responding to Disasters with Social Work Interventions" course, which include studying integrating-social policy and diversity, knowledge about service delivery systems, trauma and human rights issues, and social work values and ethics, as well as responses to disasters throughout history.

According to Elze, this is just the first step for McClain and the other DAT-certified students. Eventually, Elze and Hughes envision this class leading to not only DAT certification but also being a way for students to be deployed alongside Hughes during crises specifically to assist with disaster mental health. In order to provide mental health services through the Red Cross, a provider must be a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), something that will take the UB students three years after graduation to achieve. However, as students, they can work under the supervision of a LCSW like Hughes in the interim and gain valuable experience while giving back to the community.

Elze sees this partnership between UB and the Red Cross as a win-win-win situation.

"Our students have the chance to participate in a wonderful training program and the Red Cross gets additional volunteers," said Elze. "And those extra volunteers mean more help for our neighbors, for our community in times of crisis."

McClain's exemplary character and deep commitment to his chosen profession and to his community in general have earned much praise from UB staff. Hughes calls him her "model student" and noted his enthusiasm for the new UB course. McClain was the first student to have all his paperwork in, she said, and is now participating in Red Cross disaster drills -- something that is not part of the course.

McClain's dedication to his education and to his community has also earned him the Andrew J. Laughlin Memorial Award. The award is given to the graduating MSW student who demonstrates exemplary character, compassion, strength, honesty, sense of humor; a commitment to community service; and who models the values of the social work profession.