Thursday, September 27, 2012

From Amherst to the White House

It's one thing to travel to Washington, D.C. as a tourist and take a tour of the White House. It's quite another to be invited to speak at the White House! That's what recently happened to one of our volunteers, Tara Hughes!

Tara Hughes, right, speaking at White House on panel
entitled "Building Resilient Communites by Empowering
Individuals to Take Action and Strengthen Community
Tara was invited to be a panelist during "Red Cross Day at the White House" on Friday, September 14. "I was the only Red Cross person there talking about the response to disasters," Hughes said. "To be chosen to represent the Red Cross on this day was just awesome."

The theme of the day was "building resilient communities", focusing on what the American Red Cross does to help people prepare for and respond to emergencies. As NYS Disaster Mental Health chair, Tara has helped lead our emotional response to several disasters at home and elsewhere, including the crash of Flight 3407. "My main focus was on children and how they respond to disaster," she said. "Disasters lead to such personal stories, it made my job easy. I could just tell the stories of what I've done, training adults and raising their comfort level so they can help kids."

One of the stories Tara told was of her experience in Slave Lake, Canada in March. The town of 7,000 was devastated by wildfires in May of 2011, which destroyed over 400 homes and both apartment complexes, blocking roads. With only 40 of those homes rebuilt as the one-year anniversary and another fire season approached, Tara went to help the Canadian Red Cross, which had no disaster mental health operation. "I handed out a sheet with a list of common reactions to disaster, and someone posted it on Facebook." Hughes said. "In this town of 7,000, that posting generated over 3,000 comments. One person said they slept for the first time after reading that, because they realized they weren't crazy."

"I was asked if there one message I wanted people to walk away from my presentation with," she continued. "I said it's that information is vitally important for people to have. Children need information as much as adults. We're conditioned to try and shield kids from things we think they may not understand, but if they know what's happened and that their reaction to the situation is normal, they're better able to handle things."

There were high level decision makers from the Red Cross, White House, government partners and other organizations in attendance that day, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "While they were reading my bio, I had to remind myself to breath," Hughes said. "But once I started speaking, that anxiety and thoughts of where I was disappeared, because I was so comfortable with what I was talking about."

"Red Cross Day at the White House", Sept 14, 2012
(all photos courtesy Red Cross)
"I thought my message was very well received," Tara continued. "Afterwards, people thanked me and said how important they thought my message was. Many of them were able to connect what I had said to people they knew who had lived through disasters."

It wasn't all work and no play on this trip to the nation's capitol. Tara and the rest of the Red Cross party got to tour the White House the next day. "It was surreal," Hughes said. "We walked past a door that had a plaque reading, 'Homeland Security Conference Room', and there were a bunch of cell-phones sitting on the tables outside. So you knew there was something happening inside."