IDMH, Red Cross Leap Into Action After Building Fire

Over 300 City of Poughkeepsie residents were displaced for several days after an electrical fire in the Rip Van Winkle House apartment building on Oct. 30.

SUNY New Paltz’s Institute of Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) students and faculty responded to the emergency shelter that housed displaced residents for six days early this month while the building received smoke damage repairs. It was the first time that Red Cross-certified students in the Disaster Studies program responded to a disaster situation since 2012, when a shelter opened on campus following Hurricane Sandy.

According to Mid-Hudson Valley Red Cross Director of Communications Kimmy Venter, about 35 to 40 residents stayed overnight at the Mid Hudson Civic Center each night the shelter was open.

During this time, volunteers were needed to occupy upwards of a dozen children staying at the shelter with family and to provide emotional support. Venter said that Mid-Hudson Valley Red Cross is fortunate to have its partnership with IDMH and that the two are a natural fit.

“In the chaos and confusion that often comes with being displaced—even for a short time—having the support of volunteers who can empathize and provide mental health support makes a huge difference,” she said.

IDMH Director Amy Nitza received communications from Red Cross seeking volunteers for the emergency shelter when it opened. She volunteered on Nov. 1 and saw it as an opportunity to get her students involved.

Nitza teaches Disaster Practicum in the psychology department. The course is offered to disaster studies minor students and requires them to become Red Cross-certified volunteers through a series of courses.

Seven of these students visited the shelter in Poughkeepsie to lend a helping hand on Nov. 2, along with Nitza, program and operations manager Rebecca Rodriguez and graduate assistant Cynthia Stewart.

Shelters can get hectic, Nitza said. Adults are often frustrated and stressed with plenty of unanswered questions about when they will be returning home. Red Cross volunteers require the patience and understanding to work with an overwhelmed population, provide a friendly presence and occupy children while the adults make important arrangements or attend meetings with updates on their home.

“It’s one thing to talk about it in class or to take the training course but to actually see it in action was a great experience for the students,” Nitza said. “When you try to open and manage a shelter, there are always decisions to be made on the fly and unique circumstances that make it challenging. The students had to adapt and be self-directed.”

Fourth-year psychology major and disaster studies minor Tracy Meiswinkel was at the shelter from 3:30-8 p.m. supervising children when they returned from school. She called her first experience responding to a disaster situation “one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

“When I first got there, some of the little girls were decorating these little crowns, so I decorated one and wore it the whole time I was there,” she said. “I’ve kept it as a reminder of the fun I had.”

Nitza explained that local emergencies are rare, so an opportunity does not come often for her students. Therefore, the disaster studies minors are stationed in preparedness and management areas of disaster work, such as Ulster County Emergency Management, Orange County Emergency Management, Mid-Hudson Valley Red Cross, Greater NY Red Cross and Voices of 9/11.