Local Catholic Charities official serves with national disaster team
BY MARLENE A. ZLOZA
Northwest Indiana Catholic
HAMMOND – Extending “a national reach with a local presence,” the National Disaster Response Team from Catholic Charities USA deployed volunteers from across the country to aid flood victims after Hurricane Matthew cut a path of destruction through eastern North Carolina in early October.
Stephanie Miller, parish community outreach coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Gary, was among those answering the call. “I was actually at a disaster training session Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 in Maryland when the call came that they needed people in North Carolina, so I volunteered; one of my instructors did, too,” said Miller, who joined the national team just last summer after completing six days of case management training with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
“Jennifer Dyer, the executive director at Catholic Charities (in the Diocese of Gary), has a lot of experience with disaster recovery, and she brought the Indianapolis training to my attention, thinking I might be interested,” explained Miller, a Gary resident and mother of 10-year-old Jaden, who was indeed interested in helping families affected by floods, fires, tornadoes and other natural disasters.
“I trained to be a case manager, same as my job here, but in a disaster area there are different guidelines and different needs, and I was also taught to train supervisory case managers,” Miller added.
In Maryland, Miller completed a variety of practical disaster response courses. “We learned how to muck houses, and about safety measures and the type of safety gear to use, like air masks.”
Once Miller’s two-week mission trip to North Carolina was approved by Dyer, she headed to the Diocese of Raleigh on Nov. 9 to work on a two-person team.
“Responding to a disaster in your own backyard is extraordinarily different than responding in another location,” Dyer said. “We have Catholic Charities agencies in 186 dioceses, and when we put out a call, trained staff from anywhere can volunteer.”
Miller’s travel, lodging, transportation and food expenses were paid by the Diocese of Raleigh, while the Gary agency continued paying her salary.
“We worked in local churches, where people were staying in the basement and in trailers brought in by the Red Cross,” she added. “Two evenings we went out into the community of Lumberton and Benson County and took food, cleaning supplies and grocery gift cards - if they had somewhere to use them, and we also did case management work on-site. The storm wasn’t even supposed to come their way, so they had little time to prepare.”
Dyer said that in a natural disaster, “The poor and vulnerable are impacted more, and it is more difficult for them to recover. The people we serve trust us, while they may not know the officials from FEMA or the Red Cross, so that helps.”
After victims applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, CC case workers “helped clients with whatever (else) they needed,” Miller explained. “We’d do an interview, assess their needs, then provide whatever help we could help – food, clothing, bedding, diapers, as well as cleaning supplies in buckets, from bleach to gloves to face masks. So much had been collected through donations, from pots and pans to dishes, linens and food.”
Miller doesn’t speak Spanish, so she was grateful when the 17-year-old daughter of a client volunteered to serve as her translator, and she also battled a infection that required a trip to an urgent care clinic for antibiotics to kept her on her feet. “That first week was a little rough, but all in all, it was a great experience,” she said.
“The local Catholic Charities office embraced us, including Dan Altenau, executive director, and Lisa Perkins, assistant director. Their caseworkers were overwhelmed, so to have just one or two more of us was a big help.”
Back home in Gary, Miller’s son, left in the care of her parents, Anita and Melvin Miller, awaited her return. “We’ve never been apart this long, and he wasn’t doing too well, but I told him that for every minute he felt alone, just know that I am touching someone’s life,” Miller said. “I kept my faith and prayed my rosary. When I came back from carrying buckets of cleaning supplies to people, I knew I was helping someone get back in their home.”
Miller said she would like to host a disaster training session in Northwest Indiana to train local parishioners to be case managers in the event of a natural disaster, “but people don’t know what a case manager does.” For more information, call Miller at the CC office in Gary at 886-3549.