Catholic Charities balances response to tornadoes, COVID-19

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Joash Koh of Catholic Charities of Tennessee was assisted in unloading a truckload of supplies for tornado survivors by Britton Christian Church in Oklahoma City, who spent part of their mission trip in Nashville helping Catholic Charities with tornado relief efforts. Photos by Andy Telli

As Catholic Charities of Tennessee executive director Judy Orr leads her agency’s response to the deadly March 3 tornado, every plan must be vetted to comply with the latest precautions against the coronavirus pandemic. 

One of the chief concerns is how to provide counseling services to those who experienced the trauma of the tornado, followed by the anxiety surrounding COVID-19, when people are practicing social distancing and staying apart as much as possible.

“There might be someone whose house got destroyed by the tornado, then their restaurant closed, (to follow CDC guidelines) and they can’t go to work, and you can’t even give them a hug,” Orr said. 

Her counseling staff is adapting the best they can to the circumstances. Many counselors will be moving to offering services over the phone or through online video chat. Those methods “are not fully embraced” by counselors, said Orr, a licensed master social worker, “but in this crisis we have to do it.”

Since the tornado, Catholic Charities has added two new staff members, Disaster Recovery Manager Vickie York and trauma counselor Kamrie Reed. 

York, who has responded to disasters including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, will be looking at “the whole constellation of needs” that clients have right now, according to Orr, while Reed will be offering one-on-one remote counseling. 

“I love meeting directly with people,” said York. “That’s where my heart is. This is a little overwhelming, but God willing we’ll get through it.”

York and Reed will likely split their time between the Catholic Pastoral Center and the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville, assessing needs and assisting clients, doing as much of the work over the phone and via video-conferencing as possible.

While still responding to the needs of those affected by the tornado, Catholic Charities is also gearing up to support clients, especially those in the service and hospitality industry, who have faced layoffs and economic hardship due to their workplaces shuttering to comply with COVID-19 precautions. 

Catholic Charities is one of five local social service agencies that will receive an immediate grant of $25,000 from the city’s COVID-19 Response Fund, supported by the Frist Foundation and the Nashville Convention and Visitor’s Corp. “We’re trying to determine a quick intake process at a distance to get people the money as soon as possible,” said Orr.

Connecting with clients, remotely

Melissa Smith, LMSW, Catholic Charities’ school counseling program coordinator, said she and her fellow counselors are making contact with all their clients “to see how we can support them and offer resources while they’re at home.” 

She set up a Facebook page where she and other counselors will post resources for social-emotional learning at home and offer a space for some digital socializing. 

Smith encourages parents to make sure children still have some sense of routine “even though everything is out of the ordinary right now.”

“Rituals and routines are very important to children, especially in times of upheaval, it helps give them a sense of safety,” Smith said.

Parents and children alike should reach out for support, she said. “Even though we’re physically isolated, we don’t have to be socially isolated.” Smith also plans to offer counseling sessions using video chats, but “if there’s a kid who absolutely needs in-person counseling, we can find someone to do that.”

In a message thanking Catholic Charities donors after the tornado, Orr wrote, “Counseling is available to any family regardless of financial situation. Our counselors are trained to assist families dealing with crisis, grief, depression, chemical dependency, and much more.” 

To connect with a Catholic Charities counselor, call the main number, 615-352-3087 or visit  

‘Nashville will recover’

As the Catholic Charities counseling staff ramps up and makes adjustments, the agency continues to meet the material needs of clients while maintaining social distancing. 

Catholic Charities has received more than $200,000 in direct donations for tornado relief, including major donations from Catholic Charities USA, other organizations, and individual donors. They expect to receive $10,000 in gift cards from Wal-Mart this week that they can disburse in $50 increments to clients who need help buying food and supplies.

A trailer full of goods was delivered to the Catholic Pastoral Center on Tuesday, March 17, and Wendy Overlock, who oversees the Loaves and Fishes meal program and serves as Catholic Charities emergency assistance coordinator, is currently working with pastors of parishes near areas hard-hit by the tornado to make a distribution plan. 

The St. Vincent de Paul Society, a national network of volunteers who assists people with immediate needs and responds to crisis situations, has set up a phone number specifically to help people in Middle Tennessee who were affected by the tornado. 

The tornado help hotline is 615-362-2415. Callers will need to leave a message. Messages are retrieved daily and calls will be returned. 

Help is available to all through the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Catholic Charities regardless of religious affiliation. 

The Society had planned to host several in-person assessment days at parishes where volunteer counselors could meet with survivors to understand their needs and offer gift cards and hygiene kits, but those were cancelled to comply with COVID-19 precautions. Now, they are doing everything over the phone.

“A lot of our volunteers are retirees and more concerned about exposure,” said Joe Bibeau, president of the Society’s Nashville District Council. 

Even though they may not be able to meet clients in person as they would like, they will continue to “identify people who need help and what they need,” over the phone. They will then connect the person with Catholic Charities, who can offer the best resources and case management services if needed. 

“We’re trying to coordinate more with parishes and groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society,” said Orr. “That’s going to be a wonderful conduit for us and for volunteer support.”

Reflecting on how volunteers came together in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, and how people continue to offer help, Orr wrote in a message to Catholic Charities supporters, “We have no doubt Nashville will recover from this natural disaster. I’m reminded every day that love, goodwill, and kindness can heal those in need. Fortunately, Nashville has all three in abundance.”

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