While fire and law enforcement officials are responding to natural disasters, University of South Florida officials are left wondering, Where are all the social workers?
Dr. Robin Ersing, associate professor and doctoral program chairwoman for USF’s School of Social Work, has dedicated her career to an area of the field that usually goes unnoticed—disaster social work.
She said that knowledge about different social problems and the ability to utilize different strategies are necessary to ensure community safety after a disaster.
“Most people pay attention to those directly affected by the trauma,” Ersing said. “It’s always about how many people died or were injured. But it’s also important to deal with the ‘walking wounded,’ those who are safe but looking for a way to rebuild their lives.”
In response to the prevalence of hurricanes in the South, specifically Hurricane Katrina in 2005, USF partnered with the American Red Cross to help students and communities better prepare for environmental crises.
The USF American Red Cross Club formed in 2007 and was the first time a student program partnered with a community organization. With more than 1,000 members, the club is the largest on campus.
Ersing serves as the faculty advisor.
The disaster services cluster of the club was designed to create a culture of preparedness for the campus. It allows members to educate themselves through Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training with Tampa Fire Rescue officials.
“Our students at USF are incredible and the passion is unbelievable,” Ersing said. “The students took it [to] another level to actually become trainers themselves.”
The club hosts mass training sessions for all USF students who wish to become CPR-certified. In just one day at the Marshall Student Center, the team successfully certified 250 students.
In addition to efforts on campus, the club members also play an active role in the community.
Ersing recalled one situation in which USF students assisted elderly residents after their retirement home went up in flames. The students evacuated the building and brought the residents to an alternate facility until additional arrangements could be made. But Ersing laments that the group went unrecognized.
“President Genshaft didn’t know about our student social workers helping out,” Ersing said. “She said, ‘Our students did that?’”
Paul Latham, emergency manager at USF, holds the club in the highest regard.
“The breadth of work that the Red Cross accomplishes is truly amazing,” Latham said. “It’s a model organization with vested participation. It makes sense to explore this ideology.”
Nourhan Abdelrahim, president of the USF American Red Cross club, said there’s a little something for everyone.
“The types of activities and services we provide are so varied that you would almost have to force yourself to not become interested in them,” Abdelrahim said. “Being part of this club shows that you have actually not just made a difference down the street but around the world.”
The club is not funded by the American Red Cross. Instead it relies on community outreach programs and fundraisers to raise necessary funds.
And because of their fundraising success, Ersing promises that at meetings, “there’s never a shortage of pizza.”