Red Cross ‘gig’ takes sister to flooded Rio Grande area

August 3, 2010 by

Both ends of the Laredo bridge connecting the U.S. and Mexico are underwater in mid July as flooding on the Rio Grande damages towns in both Mexico and Texas.


Sister Loretta Jasper poses on the flooded steps along the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas, in mid July. In the distance is the Mexican shoreline.

Sister Loretta Jasper has a number of catchy phrases to explain her role as an American Red Cross volunteer:

“I help people who are having a hard time breathing sane air,” she says without even a hint of a joke. Or, “I’m a barometer for everyone involved in a disaster.” Or even, “Literally and with no pun intended, I play a part in getting people out of the water.”

Literally and with no pun intended, her job included all three explanations when she took on her first “gig” — her word — in July as a Red Cross “national responder” and certified Disaster Mental Health Counselor.

Her role with the North Central Kansas Chapter of the American Red Cross actually began nearly a year ago, when Sister Loretta and several other members of the Sisters of St. Joseph went to a workshop about how to create an emergency shelter in case of a natural disaster, such as a tornado or flood.

Turns out, there’s already such a Red Cross shelter in Concordia — the First United Methodist Church is the designated location here — but she learned that what was needed even more were the skills of professional mental health counselors.

During the course of her career, Sister Loretta has specialized in helping people deal with substance abuse and gambling addictions and has more recently focused on play therapy. Late in 2008 she completed the last of three stints in Sri Lanka with Heart to Heart International, working with children in areas devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

For the past year, she has worked in a government-funded program that provides support for military families where one parent is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. She will return to that job when school begins in the fall.

She holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., and a post-graduate certificate in play therapy from MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan.  She is a native of Cawker City, Kan., and has been a Sister of St. Joseph for 46 years.

The interior of a southwest Texas home destroyed by the July flooding.

Together, that meant she had the much-needed skills of a Disaster Mental Health Counselor. So last December, after completing the Red Cross training for certification, she became available to help families or individuals get through the trauma of tragedy striking their lives.

So far she has “supported and assisted” — her phrase — about half a dozen families.

“A lot of what Loretta does is to help people get out of the ‘trauma’ stages and into picking up the pieces,” explained Traci Speed, assistance executive director of the local Red Cross chapter based in Salina. “She may be the catalyst for them to move forward.”

Or, as Sister Loretta put it “getting people out of the water.”

Literally and with no pun intended, that’s what she did when she was called to respond to flooding in south Texas along the Rio Grande River.

Hurricane Alex, which was the season’s first named storm late in June, had already  caused widespread flooding throughout northeastern Mexico and southwest Texas. But that was followed by a week of continuous rain, with reports of up to 20 inches in parts of the Rio Grande region, forcing water to be released from two major dams in an effort to prevent them from collapsing.

On Wednesday, July 7, the Red Cross division that includes Laredo, Texas, sent out a call to neighboring divisions — including the one that encompasses North Central Kansas — for volunteers. By Friday, July 9, Sister Loretta had made arrangement to fly to Texas and by 3 p.m. Saturday she was in San Antonio, Texas, with nine other workers headed by car to Laredo.

The home is still standing, but all the family's possession — now piled on the street — are destroyed by floodwaters.

For 12 days, she says, her job was to “be a barometer for everyone involved — the people staying in the shelter, the nurses and medical staff, the sheriff’s officers, the Red Cross coordinators, the people trying to figure out what was needed next…

“The intent of the Red Cross is to get people, literally and no pun intended, out of the water — and my job begins with them. But everyone there is affected, and I can be conscious of when they need a little help.”

Together there were about 150 Red Cross volunteers, working in four or five “satellite areas” around Laredo, including Rio Bravo and McAllen.

Sister Loretta was scheduled to be there for 14 days, but after 12 the need had lessened enough that she was sent home.

She is one of only about three “national responders” in the North Central Kansas Chapter who is certified as a Disaster Mental Health Counselor, Speed said. When a request for their help comes in to the chapter, volunteers are asked to make a commitment of 10 days to two weeks. And more volunteers are always needed, she noted.

Other sisters might be interested in volunteering as members of the “spiritual car teams,” which specialize in helping families after aviation emergencies, or as “health services” workers.

Sister Loretta, meanwhile, is looking for her next “gig.”

“I may have time before I go back to the kiddos,” she says, referring to the children of military families who make up her school-year clients. “If I can help people breathe sane air, I’ll go.”


2 Responses to “Red Cross ‘gig’ takes sister to flooded Rio Grande area”

  1. Elizabeth (Betsy) Gasperich-Miller on August 9th, 2010 10:20 am

    Loretta, wow….I salute you and all that you do and have done. I am so proud to know you and thanks for your perspective……I love the “sane air” comment…..I am getting saner by the day! Love always to you, dear friend..Betsy…(Elizabeth)

  2. Margaret Tasssione (Morissette) on August 8th, 2010 7:24 pm

    Always on the move. Our flood was nothing like the flooding with a hurricane, but we still lost a lot. Reading about your job getting people to breathe “sane air” actually put our losses in perspective and for that…thank you.


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