As a Potomac High School guidance counselor, Catherine Fermo helps teenagers tackle all sorts of issues, personal and academic. Recently, Fermo and several colleagues in the Prince William County school system were dispatched to help people whose problems are much different from those of their students: hurricane victims.
In partnership with the American Red Cross Prince William Chapter, the Prince William County school system has deployed staff members to the hurricane-battered areas in the South. Several are back, and two more are scheduled to go, said Clarice Torian, the school system's director of student services. The trips last about 10 days, and the group includes school guidance counselors, nurses and a psychologist.
School and American Red Cross officials said it was uncommon for local school districts to dispatch their own staff members, especially allowing them to do so on a paid leave of absence.
The idea to go was hatched by one of the school system's nurses, and Torian then formally proposed the plan to top administrative officials, including Superintendent Steven L. Walts and Associate Superintendent of Instruction Pamela Gauch.
Competition for the 10 spots was intense; about 22 staff members applied. Torian said one of the factors considered for admission was whether the applicant had disaster relief experience or training. In addition to Fermo, several school counselors were accepted, including Sue Danielson, Shannon DiMisa, Beth Graney, Deborah Roche, Kimberlee Ratliff and Shannon Raymond; school nurses Mary Minter and Dany Peabody; and school psychologist Carrie Brown.
Fermo, who was sent to help Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans, said she drew upon some of the same skills she uses as a school guidance counselor.
"A kid can come to Virginia from New York and say, 'Why did we have to move?' And I say, 'I can't tell you. You can adjust and move on,' " said Fermo, 37, who is in her third year at Potomac High. "I took the same kind of response with people in New Orleans. People would say, 'I lost everything. What am I going to do?' "
For the guidance counselors, the main job was to help at various distribution sites, where displaced residents would line up in their cars waiting to get food, water and other necessities. Fermo walked up and down the lines, asking families whether they needed to sign up for financial assistance.
What compels people to leave their worlds for ravaged areas filled with such inexplicable death? Fermo -- whose brother, father and grandfather have served in the military -- explained it quite bluntly: "I like trauma and grief."
It's more complicated than that, she said. "It's a very satisfying feeling to help someone walk away from a situation that is emotionally severe and allow them to get their heads around it and get a plan to get them through it," she said.
One memory that sticks with her is meeting a Vietnamese family waiting in their car for food at a distribution site. The parents spoke little English, so she talked with their 10-year-old daughter for about 10 minutes until they reached the end of the food line.
"When I was leaving, the parents tapped my shoulder and said, 'Thank you,' in broken English," Fermo said.
On their way back from New Orleans, the group of counselors said they felt invigorated by the experience and grateful for the challenges they confronted, she said.
The experience could produce other consequences.
"We thought about how it was going to be different to talk to teenagers about the problems they have since they're on a smaller scale," Fermo said. "The problems the kids come to us for are not going to seem as bad because we've just dealt with all these people who had nothing."