“What a great idea to train Ohio’s workforce to be disaster responders! Everyone should do this.”
— Lisa Brownell
As a program manager for Ohio’s State Historic Tax Credit Program, Lisa Brownell is used to traveling around the state to find ways to rehabilitate and save historical commercial buildings. With M.A. and Ph.D degrees from the University of Kentucky in geography and a focus on historic and cultural landscapes/historic preservation, Lisa says “I’m interested in buildings and landscapes.”
Yet, she is also committed to human preservation. And that’s what led her to New Orleans in the midst of a pandemic to help transition people displaced by Hurricane Laura back to their homes and/or loved ones in Lake Charles, LA.
The desire to help people in need has been part of Lisa’s DNA since she started volunteering on disaster clean up and repair efforts as a teen growing up in Minnesota. Lisa, her husband Adam, and their two children, Ellie and Jonas, moved to Columbus about ten years ago and eventually joined Broad Street.
“Doing disaster work was a side gig for me even in high school. Various church and youth groups I belonged to would do volunteer work after tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes and I liked it,” said Lisa.
“Last summer I read a book about Hurricane Katrina and was driven to do something more formal to help people. I remembered that state employees can donate up to 30 days of service to the Red Cross and still be paid so I did the online training required to become a certified disaster services volunteer.
“When the wildfires and hurricanes hit the United States last fall, Red Cross asked for volunteers who had done the training. I immediately signed up and was called into service within 12 hours.”
Under the Ohio Revised Code 124.132, a state employee who is a certified disaster service volunteer of the American Red Cross may take 30 days of paid leave each year for participating in the specialized disaster relief services offered by the American Red Cross.
“We were trained to do mass care, shelter and feeding for tens of thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Laura. Our mission was to help them get home. Yet, the $350 of financial assistance each family qualified for was like a drop in the bucket,” she recalled.
“With no cars, they couldn’t get home. For some, their homes had been destroyed. Or, perhaps they’d lost all of their personal identification materials. Without an ID, you can’t get some forms of assistance. And, you can’t get an ID without your personal documents.”
In another instance, a young woman who was visibly pregnant, had already spent eight weeks at the shelter. Upon learning that she had had no prenatal care, workers had the woman attended to by the on-site nurse. This happened more than once.
“We spent a lot of time listening. Helping people think through their situation and create a plan for moving forward. Some people can’t imagine how to rebuild their lives because they were already living close to the edge before losing everything. How difficult for people to bounce back when they were already so disadvantaged.”
As a Shelter Resident Transition Worker, Lisa spent two weeks working 12-hour days from a downtown New Orleans hotel where 1,500 heads of households were sheltered. Lisa spent the first week training team members to use a database for tracking assistance efforts, noting that the Red Cross desperately needs people who can do spreadsheets and data base management.
Unlike previous relief efforts, social distancing requirements prevented the usual congregate shelter in gymnasiums. Masks, Plexiglas barriers and unfamiliar accents hindered communication.
“I’ve never been on this long of a stint with doing disaster work. It was such a dynamic experience with the team bonding instantly. It was a beautiful teamwork situation among total strangers,” she said.
“That was unexpected for me because I’m not an extrovert. I find it terrifying to make phone calls all day. Yet, it hit me coming home that perhaps my biggest service was to carry someone’s story. There’s something about listening that made a difference. At the time, it may have seemed inadequate but, it was something. At least they felt like someone cared.”
Lisa suggests that “anyone from age 18 to 100 could find a way to volunteer” for the Red Cross. Even during pandemic times, there are many roles that can be fulfilled from the comfort of your home by phone and computer-based service. Find out more by visiting the website: https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html
BSPC Elder and freelance writer Judy Chester interviewed Lisa Brownell and wrote this profile.
If you participate in a social justice program outside of BSPC, please email Bob Hines at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Social Justice Committee will continue to share other stories of important work our members do in the community.