Lakefield women return from Red Cross work in N.Y.
LAKEFIELD -- A Lakefield mother and daughter are back at home after serving two weeks with the American Red Cross disaster response effort in New York City.
Barb Bakalyar, a registered nurse, and Sarah Pohlman, a social worker, were deployed on Nov. 24 to aid victims still homeless after Hurricane Sandy cut a destructive path through New York Harbor and along the Jersey shore in late October.
It was the first deployment for Bakalyar, who recently joined the board of directors for the Southwest Minnesota Chapter of the American Red Cross. She had applied to be a Red Cross volunteer a couple of years ago, but her daughter held off at that time.
When the call came to southwest Minnesota for hurricane relief aid in mid-November, Bakalyar thought she might be asked to help.
"Then, sure enough, I got the call," Bakalyar said. "I nonchalantly said to her (Pohlman), 'What do you think, do you want to go to New York?'"
Pohlman submitted her application to the Red Cross on Thanksgiving Day, and two days later was on the flight with her mom to New York City.
They were told they probably would be sent to different areas of the city to assist those in need, and that was indeed the case. Following their orientation in New York City, Bakalyar was sent to Long Island, and Pohlman was to remain in Manhattan. The combination of being in an unfamiliar area and worrying about her daughter, however, was just too much for Bakalyar.
"I didn't think it was going to be so hard to split up," she said.
Adding to the stress was simply getting to where she needed to be. Bakalyar had to travel by cab and railway to reach the Red Cross chapter in Garden City. From there, she learned she would stay at a makeshift shelter at Nassau Community College.
"That was probably the hardest thing," she said. "I went there, where all these cots were, I was just overwhelmed -- men and women everywhere."
Bakalyar kept telling herself, "This is what you came for," but she wasn't prepared for what she saw.
"I'm not used to communal living," she said. "It was strange only having two little showers and two little stools for many people. This is how they'd been living for six weeks. We were in a great big gym -- (people were) on their cots, all their belongings next to them."
A conversation with her daughter that night resulted in Pohlman requesting a transfer to the Garden City shelter. She arrived there the next day.
"They told us when that shelter first opened up, there were over 1,000 people there," Bakalyar said, adding that a gym upstairs and downstairs in the college were both filled.
"When we got there, they were still using both gyms," she said. By then, there were 280 people remaining in the shelter.
"They were getting toward the end of it, and you had the very vulnerable people left -- the elderly, mentally ill and the very poor," added Pohlman. "They just needed more help."
Responding to needs
Pohlman thought she would be assisting in mental health work during her two-week stint, but was told only those with a master's degree were qualified for that type of work for the Red Cross. Instead, she was moved to client case work.
"We had FEMA there and the Department of Social Services," Pohlman said. "They were working on short- and long-term placement, and FEMA was trying to help people ... get temporary housing until their home was ready."
Her job involved data entry and making spreadsheets to assist in determining who was left at the shelter, why they were still there and where they were in the process to find temporary housing.
"The job that she did there was phenomenal," said Bakalyar. "They just loved her. She did a great job."
"It's social work -- finding out someone's story and getting them the help they need," added Pohlman, who works as a licensed social worker at Colonial Manor in Lakefield.
Bakalyar, a registered nurse at Avera Worthington Clinic, was assigned to work at the first aid station in the shelter.
"If people had needs, they'd come knocking on the door," she said. "They had a case of neurovirus, so we had an isolation set up. There was also an area for functional needs clients (the wheelchair bound or those who relied on a walker to get around).
"I spent a lot of time going from person to person and listening to their stories," she added.
One such story was told to her by Stefano, who had been sleeping in his wheelchair inside his home when his hand dropped off the arm rest.
"His hand dropped down, and it was in water," Bakalyar said. "He said to me, 'Everything just happened so fast.'"
The destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy was rated at a level 7, Bakalyar said. Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, was rated a level 5.
Proud to serve
Bakalyar and Pohlman averaged about 10 hours a day, each day, assisting the people at the shelter and helping them get on the road to recovery. They paid no attention to time, just getting done as much as they could while they were there.
"It felt like we were there months," said Pohlman. "We just kept going."
"Out there, we didn't even know what day it was," added Bakalyar. "We accomplished a lot while we were there."
In addition to connecting with the shelter residents, the women also got to know volunteers from across the country. Some were young volunteers working with AmeriCorps, while others were social workers, nurses, retired people and college kids. There was even a doctor and a lawyer helping at the shelter.
"There were people from Canada, and one gal was leaving the first morning we came -- she was going home to Hawaii," Bakalyar said.
Both Bakalyar and Pohlman said they were grateful to their employers for allowing them the time off to serve with the American Red Cross. Bakalyar envisions getting more involved as a Red Cross volunteer after she retires, although that is still several years away, while Pohlman hopes to do more work for the organization as well.
"I think you just never know when you need help or when you're going to need to help," Pohlman said. "It's just amazing how different people from different parts of the U.S. to work together -- to work for one cause. There's still a common goal to help people in need."
"I was very proud to be from Minnesota," Bakalyar added. "There were a lot of people you heard that were from Minnesota."
During the one day off they received, they visited the 9-11 Memorial.
Tough to say goodbye
On their last day of work at the shelter, Bakalyar went to the people in charge at the shelter and expressed her thoughts about the experience.
"You know, when I came here, nobody told me how attached I'd get to these people and how hard it was to say my goodbyes," she said. "It was tough. We had group hugs.
"Not to know for sure where they will end up was kind of hard. You just got so darned attached."
Bakalyar gave a couple of individuals her cell phone number and created a couple of self-addressed stamped envelopes to give to another friend she made at the shelter.
"They're really working hard at closing that shelter," Bakalyar said, adding that there "is hardly anyone left" to be relocated to other temporary housing.
Bakalyar and Pohlman returned home to Lakefield one week ago today.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.