Catholic Charities of Tennessee balances tornado recovery, virus response

A man in Nashville, Tenn., picks up debris near his business March 3, 2020, after a tornado hit the area. In the Nashville Diocese, people and parishes, as well as Catholic Charities of Tennessee, are balancing their response to the coronavirus with ongoing tornado recovery. (CNS photo/Harrison McClary, ReutersA man in Nashville, Tenn., picks up debris near his business on March 3, 2020, after a tornado hit the area. In the Nashville Diocese, people and parishes, as well as Catholic Charities of Tennessee, are balancing their response to the coronavirus with ongoing tornado recovery. (CNS photo/Harrison McClary, Reuters

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) -- As Catholic Charities of Tennessee executive director Judy Orr leads her agency's response to the deadly March 3 tornado, every plan must be vetted to comply with the latest precautions against the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the chief concerns is how to provide counseling services to those who experienced the trauma of the tornado, followed by the anxiety surrounding COVID-19, when people are practicing social distancing and staying apart as much as possible.

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"There might be someone whose house got destroyed by the tornado, then their restaurant closed (to follow CDC guidelines) and they can't go to work, and you can't even give them a hug," Orr told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper.

Her counseling staff is adapting the best they can to the circumstances. Many counselors will be moving to offering services over the phone or through online video chat. Those methods "are not fully embraced" by counselors, said Orr, a licensed master social worker, "but in this crisis we have to do it."

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Since the tornado, Catholic Charities has added two new staff members, disaster recovery manager Vickie York and trauma counselor Kamrie Reed.

York, who has responded to disasters including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, will be looking at "the whole constellation of needs" that clients have right now, according to Orr, while Reed will be offering one-on-one remote counseling.

"I love meeting directly with people," said York. "That's where my heart is. This is a little overwhelming, but God willing, we'll get through it."

York and Reed will likely split their time between the Catholic Pastoral Center and the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville, assessing needs and assisting clients, doing as much of the work over the phone and via videoconferencing as possible.

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While still responding to the needs of those affected by the tornado, Catholic Charities also is gearing up to support clients, especially those in the service and hospitality industry, who have faced layoffs and economic hardship due to their workplaces shuttering to comply with COVID-19 precautions.

Catholic Charities is one of five local social service agencies that will receive an immediate grant of $25,000 from the city's COVID-19 Response Fund, supported by the Frist Foundation and the Nashville Convention and Visitor's Corp. "We're trying to determine a quick intake process at a distance to get people the money as soon as possible," said Orr.

Melissa Smith, who also is a licensed master social worker and is coordinator of Catholic Charities' school counseling program, said she and her fellow counselors are making contact with all their clients "to see how we can support them and offer resources while they're at home."

She set up a Facebook page where she and other counselors will post resources for social-emotional learning at home and offer a space for some digital socializing.

Smith encourages parents to make sure children still have some sense of routine "even though everything is out of the ordinary right now."

Parents and children alike should reach out for support, she said. "Even though we're physically isolated, we don't have to be socially isolated." Smith also plans to offer counseling sessions using video chats, but "if there's a kid who absolutely needs in-person counseling, we can find someone to do that."

In a message thanking Catholic Charities donors after the tornado, Orr wrote, "Counseling is available to any family regardless of financial situation. Our counselors are trained to assist families dealing with crisis, grief, depression, chemical dependency, and much more."

As the Catholic Charities counseling staff ramps up and makes adjustments, the agency continues to meet the material needs of clients while maintaining social distancing.

Catholic Charities has received more than $200,000 in direct donations for tornado relief, including major donations from Catholic Charities USA, other organizations and individual donors. They expected to receive $10,000 in gift cards from Walmart soon, which they can disburse in $50 increments to clients who need help buying food and supplies.

A trailer full of goods was delivered to the Catholic Pastoral Center March 17, and Wendy Overlock, who oversees the Loaves and Fishes meal program and serves as Catholic Charities emergency assistance coordinator, is currently working with pastors of parishes near areas hard-hit by the tornado to make a distribution plan.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a national network of volunteers who assists people with immediate needs and responds to crisis situations, has set up a phone number specifically to help people in Middle Tennessee who were affected by the tornado.

The society had planned to host several in-person assessment days at parishes where volunteer counselors could meet with survivors to understand their needs and offer gift cards and hygiene kits, but those were canceled to comply with COVID-19 precautions. Now, they are doing everything over the phone.

"A lot of our volunteers are retirees and more concerned about exposure," said Joe Bibeau, president of the society's Nashville District Council.

Even though they may not be able to meet clients in person as they would like, they will continue to "identify people who need help and what they need" over the phone. They will then connect the person with Catholic Charities, who can offer the best resources and case management services if needed.

Reflecting on how volunteers came together in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, and how people continue to offer help, Orr wrote in a message to Catholic Charities supporters, "We have no doubt Nashville will recover from this natural disaster. I'm reminded every day that love, goodwill and kindness can heal those in need. Fortunately, Nashville has all three in abundance."

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Laurence is a staff writer at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.

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