When MTV and the United Way sent 100 college students on a March "alternative spring break" to help Hurricane Katrina victims in Biloxi, Miss., and Foley, Ala., they asked APA for information that could help the volunteers and their parents cope with the stress of disaster-relief work. MTV and APA had forged a partnership years ago when the two organizations worked together on public education materials aimed at young adults. These efforts include APA's "Change Your Mind" antistigma campaign, "Warning Signs" teen violence campaign and "Resilience in a Time of War" materials.
With advice from members of APA's Disaster Response Network, Helen Mitternight, the APA Practice Directorate's assistant executive director for public relations, and her staff developed a tip sheet for volunteers and another for their parents on handling the stress that may arise from working in devastated areas and with displaced residents.
Most people who volunteer for projects like alternative spring break come away with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment despite seeing the destruction, says sheet contributor Richard Heaps, PhD, a Brigham Young University counseling psychology professor. However, notes Heaps, if participants get caught up in the devastation--experiencing everything from sadness, anger, guilt and even numbness--they may have problems with sleep or emotional volatility afterwards.
The tip sheets, posted on the MTV StormCorps blog at stormcorps.typepad.com, advise participants to help manage these emotions by knowing their limits, taking care of themselves and sharing with others.
According to Mike Pritchard, a Biloxi team leader and development director for major gifts at Mile High United Way in Denver, the blog was still getting 2,000 hits a day in late March and April, indicating other volunteers' interest.
"I think the sheets were helpful for others traveling to the Gulf Coast for spring breaks--and for many of our participants who are planning to go back to volunteer later this year," he adds.
The more preparation for volunteering there, the better, participants observe. For instance, volunteer Adam Cox, 24, a human services major at the State University of New York College at Cortland, had seen pictures and video of the devastation and heard stories about it from his mother, a member of the Department of Homeland Security's Disaster Mortuary Response Team. But the drive to Biloxi from the New Orleans airport still shocked him. Everywhere he looked there was destruction--downed limbs, destroyed houses and blue tarps. "It was completely overwhelming," he says.
But Cox and his team members took satisfaction from the projects they worked on. They stripped houses down in preparation for mold removal and also cleaned up a women's shelter and a community center for the deaf. Both Cox and fellow team member Carlos Marquez, 21, a political science major at San Diego State University, were struck by the resilience of the people of Biloxi.
"No matter how much they lose, they are still so giving," says Marquez. He recounts with amazement how one woman whose yard the team was cleaning brought out cookies and juice. Another cooked them a big Southern-style barbeque. Both team members describe the week as exhausting physically and emotionally, but ultimately satisfying. Both hope to return and help further.
To see the tip sheets, visit the APA Help Center.