Volunteer Spotlight: Karen Beetle Brings Comfort and Stability to Hurricane Survivors in Puerto Rico
When disaster strikes, mental health support is just as important as physical aid. Karen Beetle has been volunteering for years; after hearing about the devastation Hurricane Maria brought to the Caribbean, she knew her skills were needed.
Many volunteers come to Project HOPE to fulfill a strong urge to help people. Often, working with us is the only chance our volunteers have to provide assistance to those in need in an international setting.
Karen Beetle is not one of those volunteers. Besides her decades of experience working with at-risk populations in Central and South America, she helps people daily as a private practice therapist in Albany, NY.
But when disaster strikes, everyone understands that others are facing much more dire situations.
“They need you so much more than I do,” was one of her regular patients’ response upon learning that Karen was heading to Puerto Rico and would have to cancel their appointment.
Karen was one of dozens of Project HOPE volunteers that visited Puerto Rico in the months directly after Hurricane Maria struck. As a mental health specialist, she worked alongside Project HOPE’s medical response teams by counseling disaster survivors. Many of the people she talked to had lost their homes or were separated from loved ones.
We spoke to Karen to learn about her history with charitable work, her experiences on the island with Project HOPE, and how volunteering in a foreign country is different than volunteering at home.
What was your volunteer experience like before working with Project HOPE?
I began my career as an activist. For 15 years I was involved in peace and social justice movements for change…I actually studied nonviolent movements – my undergraduate degree is in conflict resolution with a particular focus on nonviolence. In 1986 I got involved in an organization called Peace Brigades International (PBI) in Guatemala…that was my first introduction to working with other cultures. I went on to work with PBI for five years coordinating volunteer training and programs. After that, in the early 1990s, I went on to work with Guatemalan, Salvadorian, and Central American refugees in my home community of Albany.
What drew you to Project HOPE?
I had signed up to be a Red Cross volunteer but didn’t get called. As soon as the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, I was very interested in going…I felt such a sense of the importance of people from the mainland showing up, bringing a caring presence, and personally wanting to bring down the sense of isolation and neglect. I didn’t know about Project HOPE but I did some searches to see who was providing support for mental health in Puerto Rico, and that brought me to Project HOPE.
It was such a perfect match in so many ways, being part of the medical team. When I was in Puerto Rico, they wanted to do a mental health initiative for children, and I have all kinds of background with children – group interventions, violence prevention, conflict resolution, and more. So it was great that I was able to be on the team to help.
How long were you in Puerto Rico? What was your role there?
I was there from the December 8 to 18 …my biggest concern was that I didn’t have a medical background, and I hadn’t been a part of a medical team before and I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be like. The Project HOPE staff who debriefed me were very helpful. For the first four or five days, I went out with the medical team. At that point we were still doing mobile medical clinics in towns on the southern coast and further to the east. I would go out and be part of the clinic and set up my mental health area and have conversations with people.
Describe the people you worked with on the island
It was very moving, really, just to experience how exhausted everybody was. It was at the three-month mark so people had been dealing without electricity or water for three months. People really just wanted to communicate about their exhaustion, about all the ways they were tired and weary and taxed to manage life under these conditions. The two most striking things to me were the level of exhaustion and fatigue and how difficult it was for people to be separated from the people they cared about. Everybody right away told me where the people they cared about were and whether they were or were not in communication with them, and if they were in contact with them how grateful they were, and if they were not how distraught they were.
What was it like being part of the Project HOPE team?
I didn’t know very much about Project HOPE but it was so powerful for me to experience how thoughtful the organizers and people on the ground were, in terms of using each volunteer’s experience so they’d be as effective as possible given the conditions.
I felt like the thoughtfulness was a really important part…Project HOPE’s ability to maneuver and respond to changing conditions – it was powerful to watch that. I felt really supported and I felt like Project HOPE was always taking good care to make whatever resources it had be as well-used as they could be.
What happened when you got back?
In September [of 2018] I was asked to be a keynote speaker at Easton Day, an event held by the Easton Friends Meeting to commemorate an event that took place in 1777 in the days before the Battle of Saratoga. There was extreme tension, and much of the Quaker community had left due to fear and violence but a number of families remained. On a morning in early September, 241 years ago, Quaker families were worshipping when a party of Native Americans scouting the area arrived at the door of the meetinghouse. Seeing the Quakers sitting in silence, they left their weapons at the door and joined them in silence. After meeting, they broke bread and were able to communicate through a French speaking Quaker named Robert Nisbet. Nisbet had joined the meeting that morning after walking 20 miles to get there, to provide a comforting presence to families that had decided to stay in their homes. It is said that the Native American party left a feather as a sign of peace above the door.
Each year, the keynote speaker connects current events to the event of 1777 that brought peace and understanding during a time of war and strife. In my talk, I spoke about accompaniment and providing your physical presence and being with a population that is facing a challenging time as one of the key things that helps build resilience in a population. I talked about how Project HOPE’s medical and mental health team, by being there and being a presence and being available to a population made vulnerable by the hurricane, was a strengthening presence and one of the tools to build resistance from a mental health point of view.
The response was very positive…we raised more money that day than any other Easton Day before. I was asked to publish my talk as a paper for one of the Quaker publishing houses.
What would you say to others thinking about volunteering with Project HOPE?
You do have to step out of your world to volunteer with Project HOPE – in a way, that’s the most powerful part. By stepping out of your world, you’re actually aligning yourself much more closely with the experience of people who are marginalized and displaced and you feel the discomfort… that alliance that exists when you are touching the deprivation yourself, even if it’s in a very small way, is a very powerful bond with the people you are working with. That’s a very powerful part of the experience…and it brings so many great things.