Mental Health Worker offers Assistance to Hurricane Evacuees

An Interview by Brett Madron

Vanessa McElreath is a licensed marriage and family psychotherapist with a degree in clinical psychology from Azusa Pacific University.  Particular to this article, Vanessa is also a certified mental health worker for disaster relief with the American Red Cross.  Vanessa, her husband Brian, and their three children moved to Nashville from California in 2015 to join the work of G.O.D. International. 


Vanessa worked alongside nurses and shelter managers who worked together at the evacuation site. 

Vanessa worked alongside nurses and shelter managers who worked together at the evacuation site. 

Vanessa McElreath hesitated when she described her time volunteering for the Red Cross during Hurricane Irma as ‘satisfying’. But from talking with Vanessa, who was deployed by the American Red Cross to an evacuation center in Florida as a mental health specialist, I understand that such a task can be complex and exhausting, and yet somehow satisfying. This isn't because she was able to change the situation, but because for the ones God put in her path, she was equipped to make a difference. 

After receiving a call and having to leave within 24 hours, Vanessa first spent a short time awaiting her assignment in Orlando.  She was soon deployed with 3 other workers to assist over 700 people at an evacuation center outside Tampa.

Upon arrival, they learned they would receive the help of the school principal, a team of animal control employees (the shelter allowed pets), a police officer, and a handful of willing volunteers.  The evacuee crowd was initially 400-500 people, but tallied up to 758 by the time everyone was in the facility. The people who came to the shelter were vulnerable – the elderly, people with disabilities, those with addiction problems, the poor who have nowhere to go or didn’t have the money to get out of town. They also awaited a crew of migrant workers who never showed, presumably because of media rumors that illegal immigrants would be arrested.

Evacuees wait out Hurricane Irma in a shelter.They gathered in an arena where beds and regular meals were provided for a retirement community that had experienced flooding.  

Evacuees wait out Hurricane Irma in a shelter.They gathered in an arena where beds and regular meals were provided for a retirement community that had experienced flooding.  

Vanessa connected these observations to some of her recent classes at the Institute: “My education in God’s Word made me more aware of economic disparities and how the poor are always more affected by disasters.” The thrill for Vanessa came in the purpose she felt in helping to organize hundreds of people, giving them as accommodating of an experience as possible. Drug addicts, people without medicine, the elderly, a young man experiencing stress-induced seizures, and people who showed up in ambulances because the hospital needed more room for extreme cases were all in their care. Working through this puzzle drove Vanessa: “I think it’s the huge variety of needs you come across in disaster work that I love so much.  Rich and poor, young and old, crippled and mobile, etc…the opportunities to serve are endless, everywhere you look there is a need to be met, a person to counsel.”

To compound all logistical challenges, everyone was losing sleep, uncomfortable and becoming more irritable. Mental health workers like Vanessa not only provide crisis counseling for those who show up at shelters, but also for workers who inevitably get tired, are dealing with challenge after challenge while under immense pressure to help people who feel desperate.

Take this woman, for example. Trapped inside her apartment for five days after the storm, Vanessa took time to allow this elderly woman to share her experience as a way to process. It is the human component to disaster relief that Vanessa can’t ignore, partially because of her mental health training but mainly because of her knowledge of God’s word.

Vanessa spent time with a woman who was found in her retirement community five days after the storm had passed because she was trapped in her apartment.  

Vanessa spent time with a woman who was found in her retirement community five days after the storm had passed because she was trapped in her apartment.  

When I asked Vanessa how she felt like learning God’s Word assisted in her in this effort, she reflected, “It gave me endurance for sure. And then there’s so many things you do that everyone sees (news teams, FEMA, evacuees) and they thank you, but there’s even more you do that no one sees, and I reminded myself of all the recent Scripture I’ve learned about trumpeting our faith versus serving and working for the wellbeing of people, out of a love for God, is all that matters. I was continually blessed by how much energy and stamina standing in that truth gave me.”

By the time Vanessa’s 10 days came to an end, she visited two other shelters where she assisted with similar needs, troubleshooting issues and working with local government agencies to meet people’s needs, spending a portion of her meal stipends on medicine for people.

“In reflecting on the experience, I’m just glad I was there simply because I was really needed.  I was able to meet more than just the mental health need, and that was great.  Everywhere I turned, there was something to do.” Yes, satisfying seemed a strange word to me at first, but after listening to Vanessa’s 10-day journey, I can hardly contend.