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Service in the disaster's wake: Counselors teach victims to cope emotionally

In response to recent earthquakes in El Salvador, three LDS Family Services counselors traveled to the country hoping to help disaster survivors deal not only with the physical stress of their trauma, but also the emotional.

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4 R Photo: Photo by William R. Cook

At the request of the Salvadoran government, Larue Crockett, William R. Cook and Xiomara Ramirez-Brown — all based in Arizona — are training local health professionals in proper ways to respond to earthquake victims. The government leaders will then train others in the country's five disaster zones. The process should allow thousands to receive mental health counseling.

"We are hoping there will be a chain reaction," said Brother Crocket, director of the Snowflake (Ariz.) Family Services agency. "We hope that what we teach will filter down to the people."

In addition, the group is working one-on-one with Church members and other quake victims when time and resources allow them to do so.

Years of experience, however, did not prepare them for what they would see in the disaster-plagued area.

"There is a sadness that you just can't help," said Sister Brown of the Tucson (Ariz.) Family Services agency. "There is a humbleness that occurs because so many people are really only with basic survival items; by basic I mean food and water. Hospitals are overcrowded. . . . The sanitary conditions are so minimal. You travel on the highways and roads and there are clusters of people just waiting for the relief trucks."

The team has witnessed a tendency for victims to be extremely vigilant; many just sit and do nothing but wait for the next quake. Most won't sleep indoors — even in Church buildings that are structurally secure.

Children don't understand why they can't go home to houses that were left unstable by the two major quakes and thousands of aftershocks. Trees rustling in the wind startle them.

The Family Services professionals are learning first-hand what the people are going through. In addition to the hundreds of minor earthquake aftershocks, they are experiencing several severe aftershocks that cause their hotel rooms to shake and the walls to crack. "It wakes you up and keeps you up," said Brother Cook, director of the Mesa (Ariz.) Family Services agency. "It makes you nervous."

Brother Cook talked about the importance of being a trained professional counselor, but also having the foundation of gospel principles to help people resolve emotional issues.

One example is a Catholic woman struggling with the issue of God's hand being in the disaster. Brother Cook was able to visit with her and resolve some of her spiritual issues.

Brother Cook said he and his co-workers are helping adults understand the emotional reactions they are experiencing following the disasters. They are teaching them to deal with the aftershocks. They are encouraging them to be close to their children. They are trying to help the children understand what has happened.

"We have [the children] draw a picture of the initial experience as they perceived it," he said. "For children who were unable to talk that opened up their feelings, it helped them understand what the quake meant to them. They are responsive and very open to suggestions of how to get through this."

So are government leaders, Church leaders and other health professionals.

"We wish we could do more than we are doing, yet we are burning the candle on both ends right now," said Brother Crocket. "It is gratifying to see the responses and the teachableness of so many people, even high government leaders."

Sister Brown said most gratifying is finding hope in the wake of the trauma.

At an LDS meetinghouse, set up as a relief camp, one Church member set to work cooking for everyone. She helped others emotionally. She didn't mind taking on the responsibility. She even offered to share her food with the LDS Family Services counselors.

"They are so expressive of gratitude for any little bit of help they receive," said Brother Crocket. "They are so appreciative, yet they have almost nothing; a little bit of food and a little bit of water."

Team members know they can't help everyone. They pray that the little bit they are doing is making a difference. They hope for the stamina to continue working. "At night we feel tired," said Sister Brown. "We are unusually tired — emotionally tired. Because of our role here, we just have to be of some good and keep on going."

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