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'This is not a race, it's a marathon'

May 1, 2008
by Shandi Matambanadzo, Associate Editor
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After the tragedy at Northern Illinois University, the Ben Gordon Center helped the community heal

The tragedy that hit Northern Illinois University (NIU) on February 14 turned the eyes of the nation to yet another college campus shooting, and the Ben Gordon Center (BGC) stepped in and stepped up to lend a hand in the aftermath.

“On February 14 we reached out very quickly to NIU, and our staff of professionals continues to work with them and our community,” says Michael Flora, president and CEO of the community mental health center in DeKalb County, Illinois. “We have always had a strong working relationship with NIU…. It was natural to respond so quickly.”

Working with the Illinois Division of Mental Health, state emergency response authorities, and FEMA, BGC assembled its staff on-site right away to be available to help during the evacuation and also to staff the crisis phone lines as calls began flooding in. Once students began to return, BGC helped spread the word that counseling was available. “Our local county community mental health board worked with the university to coordinate volunteer counselors when students returned,” says Flora.

As part of the county's disaster plan, a mental health disaster council was assembled, and BGC and other providers, homeless shelters, critical incident stress management (CISM) team members, domestic violence centers, hospices, schools, healthcare facilities, and various nonprofit organizations came together to make sure that information on crisis services was disseminated to primary care physicians, employers, school personnel, and the larger community. The state Division of Mental Health and the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board coordinated Psychological First Aid Training for clinical providers and agency support teams to assist in the community's response efforts. The local CISM team also provided debriefing for community volunteers.

Michael flora
Michael Flora

“The behavioral healthcare aspects of the trauma and tragedy were apparent from the beginning,” notes Flora. “We saw it in the faces of our neighbors and friends. We heard it in the restaurants and churches. As community behavioral healthcare providers, we are in many cases the first call for help when there is an emotional issue.

“We have partnered with the Family Service Agency of DeKalb County and the DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau to provide free community wellness workshops,” Flora continues. “We wanted to make sure that there was no ‘wrong door’ for anyone who requested information or needed services.”

BGC counselors helped NIU faculty respond to students who wanted to talk about the tragedy—and those who did not. Many students sought out a listening ear at BGC, and Flora remembers that everyone who came in wanted to talk about the shootings, regardless of their history of trauma. He also recalls that clients with appointments were very understanding about the need to reschedule when emergency services took precedence.

BGC participated in the “Communiversity Cares” initiative, which reached out to students, faculty, and members of the community. As part of this project, BGC joined with area companies, grocery stores, bakeries, and other volunteers to collect more than 50,000 wrapped cookies, which were distributed to students to show that the community welcomed them back and would be there to support them. “There was a tremendous outpouring of support from the community at-large,” notes Flora.

“Michael and the BGC staff were helpful in so many ways to NIU and the community that it is difficult to quantify,” says Rena Cotsones, executive director of community relations at NIU. “They weren't just the person and place where a number of people turned for mental health expertise, they were known and trusted friends who immediately came to the aid of their neighbors.”

As BGC worked side by side with its community partners to reach out to the local community, behavioral healthcare organizations across the country that had dealt with similar tragedies extended a hand to BGC. For example, Dr. Harvey Barker from New River Valley Community Services in Virginia and Dr. Dorinda Miller from NRV's Community Disaster Response Coalition shared what they learned from the Virginia Tech shootings. “It was helpful from my perspective to be able to link with other mental health center CEOs and executive directors from across the country, especially in Blacksburg and Columbine, where they've gone through a tragedy like this,” says Flora, who also cites the assistance of Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, and her staff.

“The best advice we received was from Dr. Barker: ‘This is not a race, it's a marathon,’” Flora adds. “We have operationalized this sage advice and realize that this will take time.”

For more information about BGC's response to the NIU tragedy, e-mail bgcmf@bengordoncenter.org.

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