EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of CommonCall magazine.
VICTORIA—After Hurricane Harvey swept through the Texas Gulf Coast and the South Texas Children’s Home Ministries staff compared notes, they breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Residents at homes for children and families, as well as all staff, were safe. Furthermore, most facilities—including some in Harvey’s path—avoided catastrophic damage.
However, one location remained inaccessible several days—the family counseling office in Victoria. When staff members were able to return to the office building the following week, what they saw broke their hearts.
Large sections of the roof lay in the parking lot, complete with a commercial air-conditioning unit. The roof damage resulted in several inches of flooding inside the building, ruining furniture, computers and office supplies. Mold had set in, fueled by the summer heat, and it spread like a thick carpet across every damp surface.
One counselor uploaded photos to the staff message board and wrote: “Pictures just do not show the depth of destruction. My shoes squished around as we navigated our way through the dark today to load up the few things that were salvageable.”
“It was tough,” said Brenda Whitfield, director of counseling for Victoria, recalling her first visit back to the building. The counseling office was like a second home to the counseling team, she noted, and they meticulously had arranged it to be a welcoming and safe place for clients.
The building’s owner was forced to close the structure indefinitely, and STCH Ministries Family Counseling began searching for a new home in Victoria.
Parkway Church offered a building at its Lone Tree location to function as a temporary office, and the counselors were back up and running in the first week of September.
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As the counselors dealt with their own feelings of loss, they were all the more aware of the difficulties faced by their clients. Whitfield estimates as many as 80 percent of their clients were affected by the storm, either being displaced from their own homes or taking in family and friends. The result is what counselors call “secondary trauma.”
“People come to us with their personal hurricanes every day, and sometimes events like this don’t necessarily create new ones, but they magnify existing ones,” one counselor explained.
In the weeks since the hurricane, the effects of secondary trauma have been dramatic, counselors noted. Already-fragile marriages were pushed over the edge, and couples decided to divorce. Clients who had graduated from counseling have returned with storm-triggered setbacks.
“Some are mad at God, asking: ‘How could God do this? Why did he do this?’” Whitfield said.
But she finds others to be more open to spiritual answers after the disaster.
“They realize they don’t have the control they thought they had, and so they’re seeking God,” she said.
Children have unique needs in the aftermath of a crisis. Whitfield explained.
“Trauma shows up differently in children,” she said. “Children display it in unusual behaviors; it looks like hyperactivity. It’s just an unknown, and unsettledness about them.”
STCH Ministries’ goal is to provide a constant, stable support that remains long after the initial emergency response, Whitfield insisted. In addition to serving their regular clients, Family Counseling is sending three counselors to Rockport once a week to provide counseling at Coastal Oaks Church, which is operating a hurricane relief center. Appointments are encouraged, but walk-ins also are welcome to receive crisis counseling.
Reasons to give thanks
Despite the destruction Hurricane Harvey caused, members of the Family Counseling staff have no trouble finding reasons to give thanks. As one counselor said, “God’s divine intervention through this process has been extremely clear.”
Some examples of “divine intervention” took place long before Harvey was in the news. In January, Family Counseling switched to a secure, cloud-based platform for storing client files, which saved irreplaceable data from destruction. Another blessing came in the form of a special three-day staff training session for trauma counseling. It took place in the week leading up to the hurricane, but it had been on the schedule for months.
Even the losses suffered by the team brought occasions for gratitude. The deluge in the old building ruined much of the equipment used for play therapy—a special type of counseling that helps children express ideas and emotions through toys and art when they can’t easily put their feelings into words.
When Katie Swafford, director of Counseling Services with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, heard the news, she sent six portable sets of play therapy equipment to help the counselors resume their work with children.
A month after Harvey, the impact on Family Counseling-Victoria remained evident in the sparsely furnished counseling rooms, but the changes are both superficial and temporary. What remains unchanged is a deep sense of purpose and identity.
“I’ve realized that STCH Ministries is not about a building. Just as a church, it’s not about the building,” one staff member said. “It’s not about where we are; it’s about what we do.”
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