First responder alumna provides comfort in the wake of disaster

Levitt with VP Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden and alumna Mary-Michael Levitt share a hug at the Seaside Heights fire department after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Levitt is a mental health disaster response volunteer. (Photo courtesy of Levitt)

By Kenna Caprio

When disaster strikes, she responds.

The tornado in Joplin, Mo. The floods in Mississippi. The earthquake in Haiti. Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Irene. Ground Zero in New York City.

Fairleigh Dickinson University alumna Mary-Michael Levitt, BA’73 (Ruth), MA’86 (Metro), a licensed marriage and family therapist, devotes a significant amount of time to disaster response — currently as the mental health lead for the American Red Cross New Jersey Region. She coordinates and supervises the licensed mental health volunteers — psychologists, school counselors, therapists, psychiatric nurses, social workers and therapists — who respond.

“We make a strong presence with the Red Cross vests,” says Levitt. “It’s familiar and people understand that we’re there to help in some way.”

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster or tragedy, mental health responders provide psychological first aid, in an effort to reduce initial distress, to foster short and long-term adaptive functioning and to help people cope.

“The need for comfort and security, for psychological first aid, is the same” — no matter the disaster, says Levitt. Shock and disbelief are common. “The sooner that someone who has suffered a trauma can get assistance, the more hopeful they can be for feeling well. With the right support it quickly turns to, ‘We can do this. We can rebuild and we’ll be stronger than ever.’”

Mental health volunteers complete two-week rotations on the ground after a disaster. When volunteers arrive on a disaster site, many coming from out of town or state to assist local Red Cross volunteers who might be dealing with the disaster on a personal level, they are identified, vetted and assigned lodging. Typically, mental health volunteers will either take a shift at a shelter or be assigned to an affected neighborhood.

“We know as trauma disaster specialists that despair compounds the trauma and makes for secondary trauma. That’s why the Red Cross is so efficient — they make an immediate connection with the community and get that mood of ‘It’s going to be okay,’ out there.”

Most shelters are simple — set up in a school gymnasium, perhaps. Staffed with volunteers, the shelter provides housing and other basics. “Blankets, cots, pillows and meals. Additionally, the shelter has a nurse’s station, and confidential spots for mental health care, childcare, spiritual care and caseworkers. We become part of their family for a short period of time.” In the case of a large-scale disaster, such as Sept. 11 or the Joplin, Mo., tornado, family assistance centers are set up as a central location for recovery services. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), insurance companies, the Salvation Army, childcare providers and many other organizations congregate so people in need can handle everything at once. “Imagine losing your home, bank, license, birth certificate, social security card and even your car,” says Levitt. There’s just so much to take care of in the wake of a disaster. In Joplin, Mo., “There was even a volunteer who sharpened people’s chainsaws so they could clear away wreckage.”

Volunteers assigned to visit the affected area are a vital link to the community.

“During our visits to neighborhoods, we simply ask, ‘Have you been drinking enough water?’ I never go anywhere without an extra bottle of water to give away,” says Levitt. “We connect with people just by saying hi, asking how they are doing and if they need anything.”

People may choose to share their story and feelings with mental health volunteers, who can then also help them make contact with family and friends. They need an outlet. “When somebody trusts you enough to tell you their story, that makes the experience memorable.” Psychological first aid is all about mitigating initial despair, hopelessness and shock, bringing relief to those in conflict. “Even though it feels impossible, it’s not impossible. You can feel better.”

Levitt also volunteers in a Red Cross specialty group called the Integrated Care Condolence Team. The ICCT team, which includes a nurse, a caseworker, a member of the clergy and a mental health volunteer, offers services to those families who have lost a loved one in the disaster. The nurse monitors physical health, while the caseworker provides information on disaster funds, the clergyman can assist with funeral arrangements or spiritual crises and the mental health volunteer gives compassionate care.

Starting out

Levitt can pinpoint the exact moment she knew she wanted to take care of people and ease their pain during times of distress. Years ago, she and a friend and the friend’s parents were headed to a New York Yankees baseball game. Before they could leave, the friend’s father slumped over, resting his head against his chest. “He was in cardiac arrest. Everyone flew into action and I just stood there,” said Levitt.

Afterwards she decided, “I’m never going to be in a position like that again and not know what to do.” She went to the local rescue squad and signed up for a first aid and CPR course, eventually becoming an EMT. “I was part of an ambulance corps for 12 years as an officer and a crew chief. Then my son was born and I did hospice work for 12 years. I completed my training in Red Cross disaster work in August 2001.”

Her first Red Cross assignment was 9/11. At a family assistance center in Liberty State Park in New Jersey, she escorted bereaved families through a daylong visiting process. “Families who wanted to visit Ground Zero registered for a certain date. They went into an orientation, then onto a bus, then onto a ferry and then walked through Wall Street to get to a special platform over the wreckage. The platform was built especially for the families to be on site. After their visit, they proceeded to a special memorial wall to leave mementos or pictures, walked back through Wall Street to the ferry and then took the bus escorted by State Police to another orientation back at the family assistance center. It took all day. We stayed with the families to provide them with whatever they needed.”

The experience was overwhelming for everyone; fortunately, the Red Cross emphasizes the need for mental health responders to practice self-care. “It is very important to stay grounded and for each volunteer to know when it is time to rest.” Outside of her office, the Riverview Counseling Center in Hackettstown, N.J., and her disaster response work, her 3-year-old grandson and her 1983 Volkswagen Vanagon bring her peace and road trips. She’s an avid outdoorswoman who travels cross-country each year.

“Talk to people after a disaster, and it’s all about hope, people coming together and rebuilding. There’s a great coming together and energy of community,” says Levitt. “Finding a way to help a family past conflict, through whatever they’re going through — there is hope. This is not permanent. There is a way out. My favorite four-letter word is hope.”

Red Cross supplies
Disaster relief comes in many forms. American Red Cross volunteers give out food, toiletries and other essential items, plus clean-up kits. (Photo by Chuck Haupt/American Red Cross)

Getting involved

As current natural disasters — especially hurricanes — continue to mount, Red Cross volunteers have fanned out to help. Civilians can, too.

“The American Red Cross New Jersey Region has deployed more than 100 disaster workers and four emergency response vehicles to help with Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma relief efforts. We continue to deploy workers as needed,” says Diane Concannon, communications director for the New Jersey Region of the Red Cross. Additionally, 13 workers are in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands now, assisting with Hurricane Maria relief. “These disaster workers join the more than 450 Red Cross disaster workers in Puerto Rico and 230 disaster workers in the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

The best way for average citizens to support any disaster recovery effort is to donate money or time.

“When disaster occurs, the best of humanity comes out. People want to help so they collect donations,” says Levitt. Unfortunately canned goods, clothing, furniture and other necessary items can get discarded or remain unsorted by volunteers on the ground, says Levitt. “Most times, there is nowhere for a displaced person to store donated items.” The Red Cross distributes food, toiletries and other essential items.

“There are so many good organizations out there. Find one that matters to you, and support it,” Levitt says. “If you can, go to a Red Cross office or the Salvation Army and donate your time.”