Shared Perspectives

It is often said, "Disasters either pull you together or pull you apart." In the hours, days and even months after the Virginia Tech shootings, the community came together thanks in part to the partnerships previously developed through the New River Valley Community Disaster Response Coalition (DRC).

Founded shortly after 9/11 as a grassroots organization of local agencies, the coalition includes the Mental Health Association of the New River Valley, Montgomery-Floyd Red Cross, the New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS) and other groups. Our team has trained and certified a broad range of New River Valley community members in disaster mental health, including local NRVCS center staff, graduate and medical students, clergy, teachers and senior volunteers.

Thanks to that preparation, we were able, on short notice, to provide training, volunteer coordination and consultation in response to the national tragedy that occurred in this small Appalachian community.

Prepared for disaster

Immediately after the shootings, volunteers and NRVCS staff, along with Montgomery-Floyd Red Cross and local ministers, set up the family staging area and a respite center for law enforcement personnel. Although we received several bomb threats, our volunteers stayed in safe zones with the families. They escorted families to the information-gathering area and provided support and guidance through the identification and notification processes. These community partners maintained coverage 24 hours a day until the family staging area was closed.

Our responders also met with groups of those affected by the tragedy, integrating resources provided by the university to assist them in supporting one another. Fraternities, religious groups and clubs requested our disaster support interventions. As needed, we referred people to student counseling, employee assistance programs and clergy. Disaster mental health volunteers accompanied faculty and students, with police escorts, into Norris Hall to retrieve belongings. The alliance of community disaster mental health partners met with Virginia Tech leaders and emergency responders to get updates, plan for coverage and assess the needs of all of those affected--on campus and in the larger community. In addition, the community partners helped students resume class a week after the attack and then assisted with graduation.

Long-term commitment

Dozens of trained medical students from the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine and community members continue to assist with the response through the coalition.

In the first month after the shootings, the CDRC contributed 4,320 volunteer hours to the VT response. The Mental Health Association of the NRV staff and volunteers provided more than 920 hours and NRVCS provided 1,550 staff hours. The local Red Cross contributed more than 9,500 staff and volunteer hours.

The coalition has worked closely with both agencies, the United Way of the New River Valley, local ministers, educators, health-care providers and other community leaders to continue longterm planning. To that end, the partner agencies involved in this response have formed the Communities Healing After Tragedy group to coordinate response activities, seek shared funding and ensure that the community's needs are addressed over the long term.

To other communities that must grapple with similar tragedies, we'd like to share a lesson that has been driven home to us over the past few months: No university exists within a vacuum--there is always a surrounding community. Partnerships within the community and across campus boundaries are vital in forming a coherent mental health response to tragedy.

Dorinda Miller, PhD, is president of the New River Valley Community Disaster Response Coalition. Harvey Barker, PhD, is director of emergency services at New River Valley Community Services. Amy Forsyth-Stephens is executive director of the New River Valley Free Clinic and Mental Health Association.