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Red Cross Volunteers Offer Emotional Support to Grieving American Samoans
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By Christi Harlan
 
October 15, 2009

As schoolchildren on American Samoa prepared to return to classes for the first time after the Sept. 29 tsunami, American Red Cross worker Tim Serban fielded a special request.

Tim Serban, a volunteer spiritual care adviser for the American Red Cross, visits Taitasi Fitao on Oct. 10, 2009. Fitao lost her daughter in the Sept. 29 tsunami on American Samoa.
Tim Serban, a volunteer spiritual care adviser for the American Red Cross, visits Taitasi Fitao on Oct. 10, 2009. Fitao lost her daughter in the Sept. 29 tsunami on American Samoa.
Serban gives a comforting hug to Fitao. Serban is one of 88 American Red Cross workers who traveled to American Samoa to assist with the tsunami recovery.
Serban gives a comforting hug to Fitao. Serban is one of 88 American Red Cross workers who traveled to American Samoa to assist with the tsunami recovery.
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“Spiritual care was originally a team that responded to air disasters,” Johnson said. “Our mission expanded after Sept. 11 to include critical events with mass fatalities. That’s why the American Red Cross, as a humanitarian organization, is involved in facilitating and coordinating spiritual care with partners in the faith community. Death is more than a mental health issue.”

Serban has seen that firsthand on American Samoa, where his work with the men of the villages and communities has been particularly important.

On his first day on the island, he traveled to the hard-hit area of Leone: “We’re tasked with the job of reaching out to key men in the local community who have faced the greatest loss ever: their children. How as a father would you face the grief of losing your children as they fled their school to try to make it home? How would you handle the deep grief of not only losing your home but also facing the reality that you could have lost your entire family? How do you celebrate the fact that all (of your family) survived except your little angel, your only daughter, who was just six years old? These were just some of the realities we walked into today.”

In the village of Tafuna, Serban has maintained his work with the sixth graders at South Pacific academy whose 11-year-old classmate died in the tsunami, joining them last week for a seaside service to honor their classmate with a Samoan farewell song.

“It was a very deeply precious moment as the whales breached in the sea behind them—something that rarely is seen in this area. One whale came very close and blew its spray. The kids saw it as a sign from their friend that she is safe and at peace—a sight that no one could experience without the gift of tears….”

About an hour after the service, the island was placed under another tsunami watch, then a full warning.

“Just when you think the nerves are settling down on this island of grief, you experience what we experienced today—a tsunami warning as we were working with the fears of the early childhood educators. Their students, homes and people were lost….

“The grief was very evident, and the emotional concerns were palpable, just at the minute we looked out the classroom window to see a sea of children in uniforms pouring out of their schools and walking quickly on the road uphill towards us….Within a minute, all were piled into cars and into the backs of pickup trucks on their way toward the jungle mountaintops.

“The clouds hovered like fog around the top and, as we followed a steady stream of vehicles up the mountain, every 100 to 200 feet a young man stood holding a hammer-like bolt next to an empty rusty oxygen tank….each beating a steady and constant sound like a gong that echoes through the village. Just as one sound fades, another gets louder.”

The tsunami warning was cancelled, but its effects required additional work by Serban and Red Cross mental health workers.

“There were visible signs that the warning had more than rattled the nerves of many,” he wrote on Thursday. “Teachers and students alike were impacted….One of the things I said to a group of teachers was that they needed to be honest and truthful, and if a student asked ‘could this happen again?’ to tell the truth and say ‘we don't know.’ It could happen, but this is what we are doing to be safe and you need to let us know what helps you to feel safe….

“We are working in Pago Pago with families and individuals in need. The emotional aftermath is very real. It is great working together with the excellently trained mental health members and collaborating partners within the community. No one is an island.”

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation's blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.



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