It has been a wild semester for IU professors Bob Althauser and Lee Ehman. Arriving on campus early, staying late, and taking work home every evening and weekend is standard fare for university instructors. But these two retired years ago.
Althauser and Ehman are American Red Cross volunteers. And ever since Katrina hit mainland, life has been non-stop for both. Each has put in more than 200 hours of volunteer work since Sept. 1, right here in Monroe County. And with Hurricane Rita evacuees arriving this month, the climb is still uphill.
Althauser took his first Red Cross disaster relief class in 2001, Ehman in 2002. Althauser is a retired sociology professor; Ehman is a retired School of Education professor who served as associate dean. The focus for both in the hurricane relief effort has been casework — sitting with the families and learning — then fulfilling — their immediate needs.
They perform this function at the Red Cross Service Center, housed in Ashton-Coulter, a building on the IU campus. As of press time, the Monroe County Red Cross has directly assisted 93 families/individuals displaced by the hurricanes — a total of 184 people.
"I keep reminding myself that our discomforts — sleep loss and mental disarray — pale in comparison with that experienced by those directly affected by this disaster," Althauser, a seasoned volunteer who had been deployed to Florida and Texas already in 2005, says when describing "the most intense and challenging experience we have had on a natural disaster."
Most intense, he says, because of the seemingly never-ending, day-after-day-long volume of multi-tasking: paperwork chores, personal communication, and new pieces of information. Casework and keeping up with the back-office processing of cases becomes routine only with time and not before you are stretched to the max, he says.
"You learn something new by the hour, whether doing interviews or processing them afterwards," says Althauser. "There was rarely an interview with a new client that didn't present me with a novel aspect — raising yet another question. 'How do we handle this twist or that turn?' Often it was fellow case workers presenting me the questions."
Most challenging because they all found themselves shouldering more responsibility and using skills and abilities they don't ordinarily draw upon in everyday Red Cross work, he says. Some of his work with clients involved taking phone calls at the Service Center. For some, this would be the last of many, many calls seeking the reassurance that assistance was at hand.
"My greatest pleasure was in seeing a wave of newly recruited volunteers move from the classes we taught to their initial observations of case work," he says, "and for many, further movement toward increasing degrees of skill and an ability to manage the interview solo."
Ehman describes the one-on-one work with the hurricane evacuees, who found their way to Monroe County via family and friends — or because they have lived here previously:
"One 82-year-old client called a few days after having received the maximum financial amount the Red Cross can award," she says. "She said, 'Lee, I'm worried that I've done something wrong.' It turns out that her daughter, with her power of attorney, also obtained the maximum amount for the woman, and mailed it to her from Mississippi."
This, she says, typifies the honesty she has found in her Katrina clients.
"Yesterday I got a phone call from a client who is pregnant and alone in Bloomington -- she'd lost everything during the Katrina evacuation," continues Ehman. "She'd worked hard to fend for herself, jumping through many bureaucratic hoops that various agencies erected before she could obtain assistance."
The woman was excited to have approval for a rent-reduced apartment through the State of Indiana, and expected to obtain Medicaid in the next few days, including medications, doctor visits, and hospital costs related to her pregnancy and impending delivery.
"She also typifies the strength and resilience of our clients, people who have to overcome feelings of anger, loss, and depression in order to start a new life."
Monroe County volunteers have also been on the hurricane's front lines: again as of press time, the local Red Cross chapter has deployed 12 to either perform relief work in Mississippi and Louisiana, or to volunteer at the "call center" located at the agency's national headquarters on the east coast -- with more volunteers heading out every week.
For local volunteer Cathy Hill, Katrina was her first national deployment with the Red Cross.
"I was sent Picayune, Miss., to work as an EMT in a shelter," says Hill. "I was in that location for three weeks. The shelter's population ranged from around 400 people when we got there to around 30 who were placed in trailers when the shelter closed on September 19th."
Hill says she doesn't watch television so she really had no idea as to the extent of the devastation that had taken place until she got there
"I was surprised by the magnitude of the power that the hurricane must have had," she says. "To see big boats, I mean really big boats, sitting in fields along the interstate when the ocean is miles away is really mind boggling."
Another surprise me was how quickly most of the people started to bounce back and regain control over their lives, she says.
"They would come into the shelter just numb and very withdrawn and then within days, sometimes hours, when they were able to reach FEMA or do something else that gave them a sense of empowerment, they started to come back to life. It was beautiful to watch."
God was really working down there., she says "It was a life changing experience and I will never forget the town of Picayune or the people I met there."
Back home in Monroe County, Ehman deflects the awe pointed at him when the extent and gravity of the hurricane relief work is examined: "Our volunteers have been outstanding," says Ehman.
"They've learned to do original casework and follow-up work to assess further needs," she says. "They've been hard-working and committed. I've worked with about 40 volunteers at the client assistance center, and each has been gratified by the experience and what has been learned."
Melissa McReynolds works as a volunteer coordinator at the Monroe County Red Cross. She can be reached at .