News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 8, 2012

Valley man heads to Montana to help wildfire victims

TERRE HAUTE —

While Montana residents try to deal with the devastating loss of homes and property due to wildfires, a Terre Haute man hopes to help people cope with their situations.

Richard Kennel is a clinical psychologist who has accepted an American Red Cross disaster assignment to go to Montana as a mental health volunteer.

The state is currently experience multiple wildfires, including six active fires exceeding 173,000 acres near Rosebud, Mont.

The state has had 39 wildfires since May, and more than 20 are still active due to dry weather and high temperatures. Many of the fires were caused by lightning, according to a multi-agency website. The fires are causing a housing shortage, dangerous travel conditions and potentially hazardous air quality.

“For a long time, I wanted to do disaster mental health,” Kennel said Tuesday afternoon in the midst of preparations for his early Wednesday departure. “It just came to a point in my career where I could afford to leave for a couple of weeks to go help.”

Kennel got the call to go on Tuesday around 10 a.m. It’s a 24-hour response, so he had to jump into preparation mode. That means having appointments rescheduled for his clients at Associated Psychologists, as well as putting together what he thinks he might need during his two weeks away.

He said he has no idea where he will be lodged, whether it will be at an evacuation shelter or in a nearby motel. But he will most likely work at a shelter for displaced residents where he can do “in-the-moment counseling.”

And he also expects to talk to some of the other emergency volunteers who need to talk about their own experiences and frustrations as they try to help people.

Kennel went through disaster training for the Wabash Valley chapter of American Red Cross a few months ago. He assisted following the Garfield Towers apartment fire earlier this year by offering counseling at the emergency shelter set up at North Vigo High School.

“This is my first time out on a national call, so I’m kind of excited about it,” he said.

He also serves as an armed forces facilitator, meeting with service members and their families who are reconnecting in the transition home after deployment. He has been to Maryland, California and Texas for assignments already.

People will be dealing with drastic change in their lives, he said, and they won’t know what is going to happen in the future. He will try to “normalize” what they’re going through to give them a framework to rebuild their lives.

“It’s confusing, and most of them have not been through something like this,” he said.

Kennel said his approach to helping people will likely just begin with walking around the shelter talking to people, striking up conversations, and letting people talk about their situations. Most won’t know he is a mental health counselor unless he tells them.

“I’m really looking forward to the change to be out there and meet new people and help,” he said.

Carol Stevens, executive director of the Wabash Valley Chapter, said the Red Cross always needs volunteers, including those with professional skills.

For more information about volunteering, visit www.redcross.org and click on Preparing and Getting Trained.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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