A Volunteer Story

By: Leslie Holder

It was while attending an annual gathering of ministers that Susan Martin first heard Daniel Geraci’s vision of the churches around the Austin area mobilizing together to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of people who are victims of a disaster.  Susan felt the Lord revealing to her that this was the ministry she would become involved with.  After retiring from 20 years of teaching and then 12 years with the State, Susan had gone through a serious illness.  After her recovery, she decided, “I’m not using anymore of the days of my life to get money.  I’m going to use them for what God wants me to.”  It was then that Susan felt the Holy Spirit prompting her to reach out to people with the love of Jesus through the Austin Disaster Relief Network (ADRN).  So in 2010, Susan enrolled in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training and then shortly thereafter the Critical Incident Stress Management (“CISM”) training.  CISM is an internationally-recognized crisis intervention to deal with the resultant psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects from a crisis.

A skeptic as to whether the CISM debriefing process would really work, Susan decided to try it word for word as it was taught to find out.  She was able to test it firsthand in late April 2011 when one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history ravaged southern, midwestern and northeastern parts of the U.S.  The catastrophic destruction left 324 dead across six states with 238 of those deaths in Alabama alone.

Susan traveled to Alabama with a group of volunteers and while part of the group went to work with chainsaws cutting trees off roofs and driveways, she and others walked around talking to tornado victims and debriefing them with CISM.  Susan described her experience as nothing less than amazing!

She specifically recalled meeting a very depressed woman whose head was hanging down while twisting a Kleenex in her hands.  Susan said that by the time they had finished taking her through the CISM debriefing, the woman’s heaviness lifted and she started hugging everybody.  The transformation was nothing short of miraculous!  The woman asked Susan, “Could we call my husband at work and would you do this for him?”  The woman’s husband had been so depressed and wondering whether life was worth living anymore because there was just too much to cope with.  So the woman got her husband on the phone and Susan took him through the process on the phone.  The woman kept calling Susan and her team “angels.”  First of all, she couldn’t believe all these people came from Texas to help but then also taking the time to talk her through her grief to allow her to process it and then begin healing.  Susan said, “It takes courage to look someone in the face who is grief stricken and lost so much and then ask them what good can come of their situation and then wait for them to process an answer.”

The experience in Alabama left Susan convinced of the profound ability of CISM to change people’s lives, which was astounding in itself because the CISM hadn’t changed people’s actual circumstances, but it had changed how they perceived their circumstances.

Now a true believer in the CISM debriefing process, Susan was ready for the next disaster.  Unfortunately, she didn’t have to wait long.  On Sunday, May 22, 2011, a catastrophic F5 tornado with a maximum width in excess of one mile, descended upon the town of Joplin, Missouri.  158 people were killed and around 1,000 injured. It was the deadliest single tornado in America since 1947.

Susan recalls meeting a woman whose brother had been in surgery when the massive tornado approached.  The doctors had to stop the surgery prematurely.  Susan observed there was no place on this woman’s body except her arms and neck that did not have stitches from cuts and gashes because moments before the tornado hit, she laid on top her brother and pulled a pillow over their heads to protect them from the flying glass.  Recently, this woman had opened up her home to 11 tornado refugees and on this particular day had arrived at the church for help and to talk with her pastor.  However, in the chaos of so many looking for help, she was told she needed a badge to go inside.  That was enough to push this woman over the edge.  The woman broke down into tears and ran from the building.  Susan caught up with her in the parking lot and was able to talk to her, pray with her and debrief her.  When they finished, the woman returned to the church composed, gave her pastor a hug and told him she was alright.

Susan has a very real and personal understanding of how overwhelming emotions can be.  In 2004, her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren were killed when an 18-wheeler came across the median and collided head on into their vehicle.  Having suddenly lost her daughter-in-law and all her grandchildren, Susan’s grief for herself and her son was almost inconsolable.  It was only the grace of God that brought her through the ordeal.  Reflecting back to this dark time in her life, Susan shared, “It was then I knew the real and practical power of the presence of God… when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve survived and impossible things are possible because of the power and grace of God in your life.  But many people don’t know that and I knew that I wanted other people to know that too.  I want to be that open door for them to be on the receiving end of that grace and power.”  Susan knew there were many people praying for them during that time.  “I’m sure somebody prayed for us all the time!  So when we talk about God being all-powerful and loving and full of majesty and grace and when you absolutely know it, you want other people to know it too.”

Susan has shared her tragedy with someone in the field only once.  It was with a lady whose house had burned.  Probably thinking it couldn’t be as bad, the woman asked Susan, “Have you ever had a disaster?”  Susan responded “yes” and then briefly shared her story.  The woman, taken aback, could only reply, “Well… then you know.”  Although this memory is still very painful for Susan, she doesn’t see the need to share it in the mission field for the simple reason that when she is ministering to hurting people, it’s not about her but about that person she is talking to and always about Jesus.

Then, less than four months after Joplin, Susan was called to minister to victims of Texas’ single most destructive wildfire in history, the Bastrop County Complex fire.  The fire started on September 4, 2011 and when it was officially declared extinguished on October 29, 2011, over 34,000 acres were burned, 1,691 homes destroyed and two people were dead.

ADRN was allowed into the burn area on the first day residents were granted access to their properties.  Amidst the charred remains of people’s homes and belongings, God used Susan in a divine way to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless situation and healing to those who were in shock trying to process the gravity of their loss.

Two weeks into the Bastrop recovery process, Susan spoke with a young lady whose house had burned.  She arrived at Susan’s tent, sat in a corner and wept for two hours.  She seemed unable to get control of her emotions.  She told Susan she couldn’t trust herself to go out into public, to work or even to church.  As Susan allowed the Holy Spirit to minister to her through CISM, the young lady asked, “Who are you people?  I have seen your yellow t-shirts around here all week.  I know that only the Holy Spirit could do what happened to me sitting here.”  They hugged each other and wept.

Susan does not take credit for anything.  Instead, she gives the glory to Jesus.  Susan considers herself merely a willing vessel who has the privilege of being used in such a direct way by the Holy Spirit.  Susan shared about a woman volunteer who cried non-stop as she followed Susan around a disaster scene talking to victims.  She later asked Susan how she managed to maintain her composure in the midst of such devastation and loss and Susan told her it’s Jesus that gives her the grace and strength she needs.

One thing that excites Susan about ADRN is witnessing the different churches coming together to minister to disaster victims to such a degree that it transcends denominations.  Everyone working alongside one another with the common goal of reaching out to those in need with the love of Christ.

The time is now and the need is great.  Natural disasters are at an all-time high.  Consequently, many people today live in a perpetual state of anxiousness and fear and depression is at an all-time high.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, every 14.2 minutes someone in the United States commits suicide, and the suicide rate has been increasing since 2000.  Most of these people do not have mental illnesses, but are people like these who are struggling to cope with sudden life-changing circumstances.

And as the occurrence of disasters is on the rise, the opportunities to share Christ as compassionate, caring and trained crisis responders like Susan, increase.  Every time a disaster hits and God does not have His people on the ground ready to minister in some capacity, it is a missed opportunity.  So are you prepared to go to work?  If you’re not, ADRN offers trainings to get you prepared.  Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.  Luke 10:2  This is your opportunity to become a field worker for the Lord like Susan because the harvest is ripe and time is short.