Andy Northup, program manager for Samaritan’s Purse, and Patricia Kanwischer, chaplain coordinator for the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, in Cache Creek on Aug. 6. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)

Chaplains find that grief is a common thread after disasters

Chaplains with Billy Graham Rapid Response Team here to help people affected by wildfires

Wherever volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse are deployed, they are accompanied by chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, who are trained in critical incident stress management and deployed in teams for a week at a time to work with evacuees.

“They’re from all walks of life,” says Patricia Kanwischer, a chaplain coordinator who is currently based in Cache Creek. “They take time away from their jobs, or they’re retired and available to be on the ground.”

The chaplains are available to speak with people who have been affected by disaster, regardless of whether they have any religious affiliation or not.

“Grief is a common thread in every situation, and it’s usually a compound grief. Not only are people experiencing the grief of flood or fire or earthquake, there are other things going on in their life, so that compounds their grief. Every situation is unique.”

Evacuees are introduced to the Rapid Response Team via Samaritan’s Purse. “They give permission for us to come and speak to them. Sometimes they’re a little taken aback, and say ‘I don’t want a chaplain’. We’re also here for the Samaritan’s Purse staff. What they do is very difficult, and they want to speak with a chaplain, so we’ll minister and talk to them.

“When homeowners see we’re not creepy people they’ll join in and have a conversation. We’re very well received by most homeowners. They recognize the blue shirts and will say ‘Come on around,’ or will stop us on the street. We build trust for the first couple of weeks.”

Kanwischer says they also work with local churches. “If there’s a need for church follow-up because of what they’ve said, then with their permission we’ll ask if they’d like us to put them in touch with someone from their community, and will network with local churches to see who can do follow-up.”

When the call comes that help is needed in a certain area, a manager will put out calls to volunteers with the dates. Kanwischer — who has been a volunteer since 2009 and a coordinator since 2012 — says that she gets several days’ notice, and that they look for teams of two people, with the number of teams dependent on the size of the deployment.

“In Fort McMurray we had five or six teams going out at once, but we don’t need that many here.”

Like the Samaritan’s Purse volunteers, the chaplains stay for as long as they’re needed. Kanwischer says she has heard that they might be in the area for a month or more, and is planning on that.

“We stay as long as there are work orders to be completed. A coordinator stays two weeks or more, and chaplains usually stay for one week. We debrief at the end of every day and do wellness check-ins on each other all the time. Caregivers are the last people to look after themselves, and they have to know when to let go and not carry that burden home with them.

“It’s all part of the training. We don’t want volunteers to burn out and not come back; we want them to return home and say ‘I was so blessed by that I want to do it again.'”

Kanwischer says that the most important thing is that the chaplains are here to listen to people.

“We want to listen to your story, not share ours. We give people coping strategies, and help them go further on in their journey. At some point we might ask if they have a faith background, and if people want to share that we’ll explore it further.

“The Rapid Response Team is here to listen, and bring the presence of Jesus in a compassionate way by listening. If we have permission from a person to pray with them about any issue, we will gladly walk alongside them.”

Anyone who would like assistance from Samaritan’s Purse or the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team can call 1-833-738-7743, which will connect them with an office in Cache Creek. For more information about the Rapid Response Team, go to

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Ashcroft Cache Creek Journal