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Unfinished Business

From left, Anju Kaduvettoor, Erin Howard, Professor Nick Ladany, Yoko Mori, Professor Arpana Inman, Aimee Adams, Ryan Weatherford, and Abby Altman.

We had a half hour to pack our suitcases and cancel all of our remaining counseling appointments for the week. Just four days into what was supposed to be a week-long stay in Mississippi helping people whose lives had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina one year earlier, we were going home.

Given all that had happened, we recognized the necessity of leaving. Nick Ladany, one of the two counseling psychology professors who brought the group of six counseling psychology graduate students and me down to the Gulf Coast, complimented us for our professionalism in a difficult situation.

Still, as we packed, we mourned over our broken promises and dashed hopes. Beatrice Tatem, director of the University Counseling Center at Mississippi State University who helped to arrange the trip and worked with us while we were there, spoke for all of us when she said: "We left unfinished business."

Saturday
August 12, 2006


The airplane bounced slightly as it began its descent. Awakened by the turbulence, I groggily leaned toward the window for my first view of New Orleans. The city lights glowed softly against the dark sky and surrounding lands, like a golden necklace in a black velvet case.

In New Orleans, I will join six doctoral students and two professors from the counseling psychology program of Lehigh's College of Education as they counsel victims of Hurricane Katrina along the Mississippi Coast. Although nearly a year has passed since the hurricane ripped through the Gulf of Mexico coastline on Aug. 29, 2005, causing massive flooding, displacing thousands, and killing more than 1,300 people, the recovery effort continues.

The enduring restoration process daily drains victims and long-term volunteers, resulting in an astonishing number of people suffering with mental health distress. According to Time magazine, roughly half of the population of New Orleans may need psychological care, but only 2 percent received counseling.

In February, a survey of those living in housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that two-thirds of the female caregivers and half of the children for whom they cared expressed anxiety, depression, or other mental health disturbances. Since Katrina, the mortality rate has increased by 25 percent and suicides are estimated to be three to nine times more frequent.

Despite the overwhelming need for psychological care, only 22 of New Orleans' 196 psychiatrists returned, and the surrounding states have even fewer mental healthcare resources, according to published reports.

The team I'm accompanying hopes, in a small way, to fill some of this need, and tomorrow we will drive to a camp in Ocean Springs, Miss. The students and their professors will provide psychological care; however, because I am not a counseling student, I will work wherever I am needed.

Most of the students and their professors have been in New Orleans since Tuesday, Aug. 8, attending the annual conference of the American Psychological Association. During the conference, they listened to lectures about the newest psychology research, met famous psychologists, and presented their own research. Also, it was at this conference that Arpanu Inman and her two students, Yoko Mori and Anju Kaduvettoor, received awards for their research. I meet them at the Bienville House Hotel at 9:30 p.m., and turn in for the night. It's going to be a long, draining -- and rewarding -- week.

Sunday
August 13, 2006


After a late breakfast, the other students and I walked to where we arranged to meet Inman and Ladany, the two counseling psychology professors who we were accompanying on our trip. As we waited, Aimee Adams, one of the students I met last night, and her classmate, a pretty Japanese woman named Yoko Mori, told me how the trip originated.

In November 2005, just three months after the hurricane, Inman came down to New Orleans to counsel hurricane victims. When she returned to Lehigh, her pictures and stories inspired the students, and they volunteered to help with the relief effort. As the counseling trip took shape, the group received support from College of Education Dean Sally A. White, Provost Mohamed El-Aasser, the Office of Student Affairs, and Residence Life.

So Inman contacted Tatem at Mississippi State University, and together they coordinated the trip for the students to practice in Mississippi.

"Dr. Inman put in a lot of work, effort, and time," Yoko told me. As a result, fourth- and fifth-year doctoral students were permitted to counsel under the license of trained psychologists. Although most students can practice under their instructor's license, rarely do they go to places where the need is so great and the counselors so few. "This is unusual for students," Aimee explained.

To prepare for their trip, the students received a day of intensive training through the National Organization of Victims Assistance (NOVA). Most of NOVA's training programs last 40 hours, but due to time constraints, they squeezed the needed lessons into a three-hour session.

The circumstances surrounding the trip are certainly extreme, but it actually is an extension of the Counseling Psychology Program's vision.

"Our mission," Ladany said later, "is to provide social justice."

The program is committed to provide mental health care to those who need it most -- not just those who can most afford it. For the past four years, the College of Education has sent a group of students to Central Elementary School in downtown Allentown, where 450 of its 700 children suffer from emotional and mental health disturbances.

One of the students on our trip, Erin Howard, had worked at the school, and shook her head sadly as Ladany described their efforts there. "There is such a need," Ladany said.

While Aimee and Yoko were talking, Anju Kaduvettoor, our group's ever-cheerful photographer, glanced at her phone and saw three missed calls from Inman and Ladany, who were waiting for us in the parking garage.

When we met them, Inman, an elegant woman with long silver hair and a warm complexion, greeted me, asking if everything was okay. Soon, Ladany, a kind, intellectual man, approached asking me similar questions. I quickly learned that a person traveling with psychologists should expect to be asked intently: "How are you doing?"

After our hellos, we packed our luggage into the back of the two rented SUVs and a third car belonging to Tatem and began our three-hour drive from New Orleans to Ocean Springs.

I rode with Inman, Yoko, and Ryan Weatherford, a tall, personable student. As we drove away, Ryan asked Inman how New Orleans had changed since her last visit.

"One of the first things I noticed [this visit]," Inman said, "was that flowers were blooming and the trees were green. When I came in November, all of this was dead."

As she spoke, I looked out at a bayou surrounding New Orleans. Some of the trees surrounding the water were naked and white, like bleached skeletons; others, though dead, were draped in vines, bpressed everyone on the trip. Erin Howard summarized these feelings. "Despite being obviously tired and stressed and pushed to their limits by the events of the past year," she said, "these people were among the most optimistic and grateful and welcoming I have ever come in contact with."

We worked until 5 p.m. -- dinnertime. I was tired and hungry. Dinner was cooked fresh out of the can, and although it wasn't what I would consider appetizing, I realized that we were eating the same food we gave out.

Tuesday
August 15, 2006


Cans of drinking water are stacked in the warehouse, waiting to be distributed to those in need.

Today was the first day of official counseling, and three students spent the morning scheduling private counseling sessions for today and Friday afternoon. They then had a final two-hour training session. After lunch, Ladany, Inman, and Tatem each took one student out for home visits, and the remainder of the group stayed behind to work in the distribution center.

In a traditional counseling environment, the client and counselor meet 10 or more times in the counselor's comfortable office. But for the Katrina victims, these short home visits may be the only counseling sessions they get. Ladany spoke of the privileged and heightened understanding that can be gained by seeing people in their own homes.

"When you meet in someone's home and smell the mold they live in," he said, "that's more powerful."

Abby Altman, a chirpy student with curly dark hair and intriguing eyes, expressed some concern that these short encounters were not enough.

"I feel like it's once and done," she said. "I don't know how much good we're doing."

But in her next breath, she reminded herself that they were making a difference, even if they couldn't see the results. "I just don't think I understand it cognitively yet," she said.

I chose to work outside the distribution center today, and ended up sitting outside the service office for an hour before being told that I would join two carpet layers. Then I had to wait even longer while the work supervisor drove to the hardware store to purchase supplies.

While waiting, I heard whispers and rumors of something happening at the center. The full-time volunteers seemed excited, and later that day, I overheard someone mention that another full-time volunteer had threatened to sue the distribution center director for sexual harassment.

My work team finally left at 9:15 a.m. to work at a house 20 minutes away. The entire lower level and part of the second floor had been flooded. Since then, the house had been gutted and rebuilt with the help of various volunteer groups.

Before we began laying the carpet, the work supervisor realized that he left his tools at another house and needed to retrieve them. When we finally began working, it was 10 a.m. For an hour or so, I helped carry and place carpets in the home, but at 11:15 a.m., my supervisor needed to purchase a carpet stapler. So, we left for lunch early, and after our meal, we drove out to the hardware store again, only to be told that the store did not carry carpet staplers.

Our only option was to focus on what we could do: trimming the carpet and stuffing it under the drywall's lip. There were only tools enough for one, and I watched the supervisor work and tried to anticipate his needs.

As I worked in the humid, 90-plus-degree heat and humidity, I could feel tiny beads of sweat slipping down my back and lacing my forehead. A week earlier, I had fallen and injured my shoulder, and by the end of the day, my shoulder ached. Later, I would discover that my collarbone was broken, and should have been immobilized two weeks earlier.

When I returned to the camp Tuesday afternoon, I discovered that the distribution center was closed after lunch, because there weren't enough volunteers to keep it open in the afternoon. The news disturbed my team. We had left three members behind to help with distribution, and although we had informed the full-time volunteers of our plans, it seemed no one understood that some of us would be around.

Wednesday
August 16, 2006


Signs of Hurricane Katrina's wrath were abundant along the Gulf Coast a year later.

Today, our team split into two groups again. In the morning, I joined three other students, Inman, and Ladany in taking applications for aid and working in the distribution center. I carried soup cans and lifted shopping bags, despite the continuing pain in my shoulder. Meanwhile, the other half of our team worked at a nearby medical clinic run by the same church organization. The plan called for us to switch jobs after lunch. But at 11:30 a.m., Ladany gathered us together and said that a "situation" had occurred, and we needed to go to the medical clinic immediately.

Ladany remained at the center, and on our way to the clinic, we speculated about the cause of our sudden departure. But nobody knew what was behind the decision. When we arrived at the clinic, the secretary welcomed us. The doctors had the day off, we were told, and the other half of our group had left for lunch. As we waited for the remainder of our team to show up, the psychology students prepared three presentations they planned to give later. This afternoon, they were going to debrief the volunteers of the shelter and help them manage their stress. Tomorrow, they would host a session for the elderly and give another on Saturday for parents and their children.

As we worked, Inman called, telling us to return to Camp Victory. As we were getting ready to leave, the other Lehigh students showed up at the clinic and informed us that as they were pulling out of the parking lot this morning, they saw the center's director being arrested as the other full-time volunteers looked on and laughed.

We drove back to the camp together, and Ladany told us that we had a half hour to pack our suitcases and cancel all remaining counseling appointments. We were leaving. A little after 4 p.m., the cars were packed and we drove away. But before leaving Ocean Springs, we stopped at Applebee's for appetizers and answers. Ladany, with help from Inman, explained the situation.

That morning, Ladany and Inman sat down with some of the volunteers to discuss the counseling presentation planned for the camp volunteers that evening. During their discussion, they discovered that on Tuesday, one of the full-time volunteers had complained that the director had sexually harassed her and that he had a history of sexual harassment.

That afternoon, the center ran a background check on him for the first time. Volunteers -- even full-time volunteers, it turned out -- were not required to provide any information about their past. Only those actually hired by the camp had to go through a background check. The background check revealed an outstanding warrant for a trespassing violation, and yesterday evening, the camp fired the director from his volunteer job, separating him from his source of food and other supplies.

This morning, the man appeared for breakfast, and one of the camp officials called the police. He was arrested, but was only detained for a few minutes. Once he was released, he allegedly placed a threatening phone call to the organization that runs the distribution center. A little later, his wife allegedly called, threatening to kill one of the workers at the camp. None of the threats were directed at anyone from Lehigh, but our association with the center still endangered us.

"(These two people) deserve our compassion," Ladany told us. "They are struggling, but that doesn't mean we put ourselves where we are unsafe."

It wasn't just the threats that precipitated the decision to leave. The center's staff had not planned to tell our team about the threats. The information was leaked during other discussions. And until Ladany and Inman took action, the other volunteer group working there had not known, either.

When Ladany suggested that the staff call the police and get a restraining order, they hesitated and wanted to contact their public relations office.

"What became clear," Ladany said, "was that they were not as concerned about security as they were about their appearance."

At that point, Ladany sent those of us who were in the distribution center to the medical clinic.

Ladany and Inman remained at the camp, seeking an alternative solution. They considered finding a hotel or another mission for the students to work from, but no viable options presented themselves.

"In the end, it seemed clear that there was not an option to ensure your safety that would allow you to continue your work," Ladany told us.

As they spoke with the staff, Inman and Ladany realized that there was no leader, just "a lot of people working, but no one working together," Ladany said.

Instead, the staff "began looking to us to take the lead," Inman said. One staff member asked the professors what they should do about the distribution center. Close the center until safety and order can be ensured, Ladany and Inman responded.

By leaving, Ladany and Inman made a clear statement that the disorganization was unacceptable. Our departure was reported to the organization's national office, and the camp was closed for the next two weeks. Unfortunately, that means that many people will not be able to get food and supplies, but our hope is that it will result in a positive change for the camp.

Psychologists and counselors frequently guide people to improve themselves. In this way, Ladany said, our group provided counsel for the organization.

"If we weren't there, I truly believe it would have been something different," Ladany said. "These things happen when someone doesn't take a stand."

After our meal at Applebee's, we drove to New Orleans and rearranged our flights. We spent our last night on the Gulf Coast eating a late dinner at a pleasant restaurant on Bourbon Street before driving to our hotel.

I flew home to Maryland on Thursday morning, four days earlier than I anticipated.

Epilogue:
A few days later


Becky Straw helps distribute food at the center.

As I reflect on our trip, I realize that we experienced a mini-crisis, not unlike the victims of Katrina. Our lives were threatened, we did not have enough information, and we evacuated suddenly. Everything we had planned was put on hold and rearranged.

When I discussed the trip with Ladany and Inman, they had also recognized the similarities. "The students' feelings of helplessness reflect the clients' feelings," Ladany said. "The difference is that we knew where we were going and they didn't."

Our adventures and misadventures have not dissuaded Inman and Ladany from planning to bring students to the Gulf Coast in the future.

"I would say that we should go back," Ladany said.

Most of the students agree. As Ryan put it: "Not only would I, but I hope to go back again at some time."

Becky Straw is currently a Presidential Scholar at Lehigh, working toward a master's degree in pharmaceutical economics. She graduated in May 2006 with a double major in science writing and biology.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2006

Posted on Monday, November 06, 2006

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