ELYRIA — Surrounded by a nearly inconceivable level of destruction left in the wake of the deadly tornadoes that ravaged Joplin, Mo., on May 22, Henry Bruner saw hopeful signs.
"As the days went on, I could see the healing process at work," Bruner said after returning from a two-week stint in Missouri where he served as a volunteer Red Cross mental health worker. "I could see more laughter and people becoming more comfortable and finding comfort in each other."
The emerging signs of hope affirmed the work being done by hundreds of Red Cross workers from across the nation who converged on the Joplin area in the days following the storms that claimed the lives of more than 140 and destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and heavily damaged a hospital.
A retired pastor whose first work as a Red Cross volunteer was when he traveled to Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2008, Bruner said one of his most important skills in helping people begin to adjust and cope was being "a careful listener."
And when it was requested by clients, he prayed with them "to help get back some normalcy in their lives," he said.
Bruner was among those who worked with nearly 350 people who had lost nearly everything and sought temporary housing in a local Red Cross shelter, Mary Moran of the Lorain County Red Cross chapter said. Most shelters were set up in area schools.
"Whenever people came into the shelter, they were struggling and in shock, trying to make sense of it all," Moran said.
Despite being with hundreds of others in the same situation, many of those Bruner counseled felt a "high sense of loneliness" sparked in part by their immense sense of loss.
"These people have lost everything," Bruner said.
Teams of Red Cross workers and others distributed items including soap and toothbrushes, coolers, gloves, trash bags and stuffed animals for children. Meals were provided to shelters and in affected neighborhoods through a joint effort between Red Cross and Joplin's Missouri Southern State University. "Once you get people's basic needs met, you can begin to concentrate on their emotional needs," Moran said. "Some needs are more than others, but a meal and a teddy bear can be a great help."
When Bruner and others got ready to return home, Joplin children made a big "thank you" banner.
"No matter what age they were, when children heard wind blow, they started to shake," Bruner said. "We always talk about kids being so resilient. They were afraid, but they don't always know how to express it. Kids need to feel safe and know they are OK."
Tornado victims aren't the only ones who feel the impact of such a horrific experience.
"Seeing it on the news and seeing it in person is two different things," Moran said. "When Henry told me about seeing it was when he really started to tear up. Those are images he will carry with him."
The physical and emotional strength needed to go into such a stressful setting to try to comfort others sometimes takes as heavy a toll on volunteers who often feel a sense of guilt over leaving a job undone when they return home.
"That's why we limit their time to two to three weeks. After that, they're not of service anymore because they're physically and emotionally exhausted," Moran said.
Bruner said he felt a need to be there.
"I do it because of who I am," he said. "I have experienced a real call to be with people in crisis."
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.