Stoughton Ald. Sid Boersma spent a week in August working with survivors of the Dayton, Ohio, mass shooting, where nine people were killed and 27 wounded on Aug. 4.
For that week, Boersma visited 30 people in Dayton and helped them find some balance again after enduring the tragedy, he said, as a volunteer disaster mental health social worker with American Red Cross.
Even in those times of pure despair and confusion, the shooting survivors still found a way to be grateful, he said.
“I (saw) a lot of tears of gratitude,” Boersma said.
And while working with survivors he said he felt there was a true difference in emergency response for a mass shooting and natural disaster. In working with victims of mass shootings, Boersma said it is about immediate needs.
Boersma was first deployed with the American Red Cross, as a volunteer disaster mental health social worker during the Stoughton tornado that devastated the city. After serving the community where he raised his children, he felt compelled to do more, he said.
Boersma, also an army veteran, worked as a contract social worker for the Department of Defense and provided therapy to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to local disasters, like the Stoughton tornado and flooding last year, Boersma was deployed via Red Cross during the California fires in Paradise, Hurricane Harvey and the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida.
“We help them focus on what’s important, how to get back to normal, how to care for their kids, how to make it from day to day,” Boersma said.
He is not allowed to talk about specific clients but he did work with people who were injured, whose family members were killed and who lived in the afflicted neighborhoods.
Boersma said he doesn’t ask people if they saw someone get shot or what they heard; he said those details aren’t often helpful. His first statement is that he is sorry for what happened and immediately asks, “How are you doing?”
The Red Cross is able to refer clients to an agency or a doctor, donate money to get through the week or provide someone to talk to because life becomes confusing after extreme stress situations, Boersma said.
“Essentials are getting sleep, (system of) supports, help with child care,” Boersma wrote for the National Association of Social Workers. “We can encourage positive thoughts and feelings. We address the issue of fairness and justice. Life is not fair, ever, but especially in these situations, but dwelling too much on injustice is debilitating in itself.”
Handling the disasters
In Boersma’s experience, mass casualty shootings and natural disasters are different.
He said there is more of a mental health aspect to caring for victims of mass shootings, since many of them are prone to suffering long term mental health afflictions like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And Boersma said the challenge is he has to consider how to help the victims in a short amount of time, most recently in a week window.
“To be very blunt, it’s very quick,” Boersma said. “It’s deadly. It’s awful. it’s not an act of God. It’s an act of man.”
He said as his response is different as a therapist, the systemic response is different as well.
During this deployment, The Red Cross wanted to reduce their presence to not seem promotional, Boersma said. Volunteers did not wear red, the color of the Red Cross. When a survivor received a compensation card, Boersma said “this card is from the American people,” rather than saying this is a gift from the Red Cross.
In addition, people want to talk politics after a mass shooting. But Boersma said a place for grieving is not a place for political arguments, and Red Cross staff are trained to say away from that topic.
There is a lot of work to be done to prevent mass shootings, Boersma said. But a very simple thing people can do at the local level, he said, is to consider each other more and make deeper connections.
“I would like this country to be more kind,” Boersma said.
After he returns from each Red Cross deployment, Boersma takes a break. He goes home to visit his four grandchildren, all under the age of four.
Boersma also plays the mandolin at his home to rebalance himself. He practices mindfulness and meditation; to focus on one thing at a time and to experience the present.
“I get back home and everything seems a bit different ... I’ve changed every time I go in one of these situations; you see different things,” Boersma said.
As neighbors and residents of Stoughton, we can always look out for each other, he said.
“We’re here as a community,” Boersma said. “We have to protect our people,” Boersma said.