An article titled “River of Hope:  A Haven of Help in a Storm Devastated Ninth Ward” appeared in the Fall 2009 Trauma Psychology Journal of the American Psychological Association.  The article was co-authored by Dr. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, of Georgetown University and Rebecca Thomley, of Orion Associates.  The article discussed the initiation of the “River of Hope” project in the fall of 2005, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the ongoing work of the organization’s Walk-in Mental Health Center in the Upper Ninth Ward of the city.

The text of the article is as follows:
River of Hope:  A Haven of Help in a Storm Devastated Ninth Ward
By Pricilla Dass-Brailsford, EdD, Georgetown University and Rebecca Thomley, PsyD, Orion Associates
It is a blistering hot 99F spring day, in the Ninth ward of New Orleans, but it feels more like the middle of summer. The tents have been set up, the tables laid out with a variety of paper goods, red beans and rice, and red velvet cake. Children frolic on the green lawn, cold juice boxes held tightly in their sweaty hands. Soon the drummers arrive in tandem; and gather themselves and their instruments in a circle. Slowly a crowd of local residents congregate for the monthly healing drum circle organized by the River of Hope project at the Walk-in Mental Health Center located in the New Salem Baptist Church.

Traditionally a drum circle is a community music making event where people sit or stand in a circle while playing hand drums and percussion instruments; participants range from a handful of experienced players to circles with people drumming for the first time; the primary purpose is to provide opportunities for people to come together and communicate through drum beats. Drumming usually consists of improvised rhythms and the music is thus created in the moment. In the drum circle, there is no audience and everyone participates according to their comfort level by clapping their hands, stomping their feet or nodding their heads.

According to psychotherapist Robert Lawrence Friedman (2000), author of The Healing Power of the Drum, drumming is innate to the human condition and resonates with the inner rhythms of our heartbeats, breathing, and brainwaves. Drumming has several benefits; it provides both the seasoned drummer and the neonate, with a positive experience and brings people of all ages, abilities, races and cultural groups together. Drumming is a universal language that everyone understands; we can all differentiate between somber beats and more spirited ones.
Finally, the drum is a powerful instrument and those who drum often feel the power of the instrument in their hands; this feeling of empowerment transfers to both the player and the listener. For the residents in the Ninth Ward the monthly drumming circle provides an opportunity to express the pain and losses that Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon their community, it acknowledges the hardship and suffering they have borne since that fatal day of August 29, 2005. For a brief moment, at least, they are able to release some of their stress and the storm does not retain mastery of their lives. The drum circle was conceived as a monthly event at the Walk-in Mental Health Center to bring community members together, and make the center a familiar and comfortable place; thus reducing the stigma usually attached to seeking mental health support.

River of Hope is the inspiration of Dr. Rebecca Thomley, a psychologist and CEO of Orion Associates, a Human Services Management Company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After a Red Cross deployment in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, like many first responders, she found the images of human anguish, pain and suffering unshakeable. Dr. Thomley was determined to return to the storm devastated Gulf coast in order to help survivors re-establish their former lives.  She proposed the idea of a hurricane recovery trip to her staff at Orion Associates; they enthusiastically supported the philanthropic idea and thirty five people immediately signed up for the first volunteer activity scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend (2005) in New Orleans.

During her deployment Dr. Thomley had established a relationship with Pastor Warren Jones whose church and church community in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans was ravaged by the storm. She had promised him that she would return to assist in restoring his flooded neighborhood; she made good on this promise. Twenty-two days after the volunteer project was proposed, a large truck filled with donated cleaning supplies, personal items, clothing, food, and building materials left Minnesota for New Orleans. The rest of the volunteers boarded planes to join them in the Gulf Coast. Travel and accommodation expenses were covered by fund raising and other private donations. On the afternoon of November 26, 2005 the first group of 35 volunteers arrived at the New Salem Baptist Church of Pastor Jones. The volunteers planned to spend several days helping residents make their homes livable again; they anticipated spending the week doing heavy duty housecleaning and were armed with large supplies of bleach and mops to ensure that this task was accomplished. They met a different reality.  Flooding had left behind a slimy residue that clung stubbornly to everything it had touched; mold appeared to be growing profusely; and the stench was overwhelming. Cleaning alone was not sufficient in restoring the neighborhood; most of the homes needed to be completely stripped and gutted. Undaunted, the eager volunteers devoted themselves to accomplish this challenging task.

They worked, side by side with area residents who shared stories of evacuation, escaping flood waters, survivorship of hope and loss. They were trauma stories that left an indelible mark on the listeners. It soon became apparent that this first trip would be one of many and thus was born the River of Hope Volunteer project.  Multiple trips to the Gulf Coast soon followed. Since rebuilding was identified as a clear need by the community, people from building and construction trades were recruited as volunteers. River of Hope quickly evolved into a statewide and national volunteer effort.

Twelve similar relief trips to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward involving more than 460 volunteers from Minnesota, employed in a variety of occupations (construction workers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, ect.) were organized. Volunteers raised and distributed thousands of dollars worth of supplies and contributions and provided over 12,000 hours of labor. During the first three years following Hurricane Katrina, River of Hope volunteers gutted over 50 homes, remodeled the homes of five elderly individuals, and rebuilt six community structures including a church, a domestic abuse center, a mental health resource center and two homes that serve elderly individuals. A major accomplishment of River of Hope was the development of the first Walk-in Mental Health Resource Center in the Ninth Ward. The resource center first opened in January 2007, funded mainly by private donations. However two years later, in January 2009, the resource center obtained funding through a grant from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. The River of Hope Mental Health Resource Center uses volunteers to provide counseling, resources, referrals and community education.

Volunteerism inevitably transforms everyone it touches and there is little doubt that individuals benefit from doing volunteer work that extends far beyond the volunteer act itself; the benefits linger long after the volunteer role ends. However, these benefits are usually unintended consequences of philanthropic actions that are intrinsically motivated. Indeed, for many volunteers, volunteering is an expression of values they hold sacred and which are embedded in the act itself, attaching rewards to altruistic behavior can be perceived as undermining their motivation and distorting their values.

Participation in the River of Hope project resulted in several changes at a personal, interpersonal and institutional level for both volunteers and staff of Orion Associates. At a personal level, the roles that some volunteers were assigned led to professional transformation. For example, staff members from Orion Associates were often places in team leadership positions during the volunteer trips and company management was often part of these teams.  As volunteers, they demonstrated a tremendous growth in leadership skills, appeared to exercise good judgment and displayed a capacity to efficiently guide and support their teams. These skills were later put to good use in their work at Orion Associates.

Second, volunteers had multiple opportunities for cross cultural interaction and engagement; it was an experience that could not be replaced in any diversity training curriculum. The experience of working in the Ninth Ward’s poor, mostly black neighborhood was a transformative experience that increased their sensitivity to working with those who were culturally different. Through practical experience, they gained great understanding of how race, class and cultural in America intersect. These personal gains had lifelong benefits.

Third, a commitment to service evolved among River of Hope volunteers who were inspired to become active change in agents in their own communities when they returned to Minnesota.  For example, they became enthusiastic supporters of local volunteer activities, and reported enlisting in several ongoing volunteer activities; some participated in breast cancer fundraising and hand packaging food for the hungry while others engaged in raising awareness and taking action in response to the genocide in Darfur.

On an interpersonal level, the volunteering improved relationships, increased camaraderie and a sense of trust both among staff members and between staff and management of Orion Associates. Working together in the service of others connected people in indescribable ways; the shared experience of helping was taken back to Minnesota and translated into improved collaboration and co-operation in the work place. Lasting friendships, both personal and professional developed during the volunteer engagement.

The volunteer activities also resulted in institutional changes and River of Hope strengthened the home organization’s (Orion Associates) commitment to contributing to the community. The unique approach to relief recovery that the organization had developed was viewed positively and a decision was make to make crisis response an integral part of ongoing initiatives. This resulted in a new non-profit corporation, Headwaters, LLC within the existing institution. The missions of the new corporation was to react with agility and compassion when disaster strikes; and to provide practical aid, physical recovery assistance and mental health support to victims after the first responders have come and gone. In 2007 the new corporation had its first opportunity to respond when severe floods struck Minnesota that summer; within 24 hours a veteran team of River of Hope relief workers were on the road to the communities that were hardest hit by the floods.

It is certainly true that a small act of giving can have untold repercussions. The fulfillment of a promise made to an individual in his moment of crisis was both an act of generosity and compassion with incalculable consequences; the opportunity it has brought and continues to bring cannot be measured. Similarly, long after the sounds of the drum brats have faded the sense of connection, healing and comfort that it instilled remains.

Priscilla Dass-Brailsford is a faculty member in the department of Psychiatry at Georgetown University. She studies the effects of trauma, specifically community violence and other stressful events and is particularly interested in whether individuals from historically oppressed or stigmatized groups experience unique stressors or exhibit culturally specific coping process. She is currently working on a project to develop a parenting program to support individuals whose children have been affected by a major disaster. She is also collecting data on mental health workers including school counselors, clinicians, pastors and other professionals working in the Gulf Coast with the goal of assessing secondary trauma among helping professionals who have experienced stress and dislocation after Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Dass-Brailsford has published articles in the area of trauma multiculturalism and community psychology.  She has two published books: A Practical Approach to Trauma: Empowering Interventions (2007, Sage Publications) and Crisis and Disaster Counseling: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina (2009, Sage Publications). She is an APA Fellow and currently a member of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Women in Psychology, chair of the Community Engagement Committee for the Society of Counseling Psychology and co-chair of the Multicultural Committee for the Society for Trauma Psychology. In the recent past, she was chair of the Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs. Dr. Dass-Brailsford has made presentations in trauma to many organizations both nationally and internationally.

Rebecca S. Hage Thomley serves as President and CEO of Orion Associates; Meridian Services, Incorporated; Zenith Services; Orion Intermediary Services Organization and Headwaters Relief Organization. In this position she is responsible for setting vision, strategy and overseeing all aspects of the four organizations. Dr. Thomley holds a degree in Psychology and Criminal Justice; a Master of Science Degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Rehabilitation Counseling; a Master of Arts Degree in Organizational Management; and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She is finishing a Masters degree in Psychopharmacology. She is President-Elect of the Minnesota Psychological Association, and the Disaster Relief Network Representative for Minnesota. Dr. Thomley is active in the Red Cross and passionate about environmental concerns, the promotion of volunteerism, and community engagement. In addition to her leadership activities in the Orion agencies, she is a practicing clinical psychologist.