Dougherty grad organizes seminar to aid Sandy victims

Deal­ing with the af­ter­math: Ameri­Health Mercy’s Katie Hop­kins, with as­sist­ance from col­league Chris Drumm, or­gan­ized last Fri­day’s pub­lic sym­posi­um, ‘Su­per­storm Sandy: The Emo­tion­al Af­ter­math,’ at Richard Stock­ton Col­lege in Gal­lo­way, N.J. TOM WAR­ING / T

When Su­per­storm Sandy landed in late Oc­to­ber and greatly dam­aged the New Jer­sey coast­line, Katie Hop­kins wanted to do something to help.

Hop­kins, a Car­din­al Dougherty High School gradu­ate and Rockledge res­id­ent, is a man­ager of gov­ern­ment re­la­tions for Ameri­Health Mercy, a health­care com­pany whose primary fo­cus is Medi­caid-man­aged care.

“What can we do? What are our tools?” Hop­kins said she asked her­self.

After con­fer­ring with col­leagues, she settled on plan­ning a pub­lic event titled Su­per­storm Sandy: The Emo­tion­al Af­ter­math.

The for­um, which drew about 250 people to Richard Stock­ton Col­lege last Fri­day, brought to­geth­er a pan­el of pro­fes­sion­als and a key­note speech by Patrick Kennedy, a former con­gress­man from Rhode Is­land and son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Patrick Kennedy, 45, served in Con­gress from 1995 to 2010. After leav­ing the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, he mar­ried a teach­er. He and his wife live in Brig­antine, N.J., with their son, Owen. Kennedy said his “heart is here in New Jer­sey.”

In Con­gress, Kennedy — who is bi­polar and has battled al­co­hol is­sues — helped shape a law that re­quires group health plans to fund care for men­tal ill­ness at the same level as phys­ic­al ill­nesses. Kennedy brought up that theme when dis­cuss­ing what the vic­tims of Sandy are go­ing through in the storm’s af­ter­math.

“This isn’t about men­tal health, psy­cho­lo­gic­al health or psy­chi­at­ric health,” Kennedy said. “Let there be no mis­take what this is about today: phys­ic­al health.”

At an­oth­er point in the dis­cus­sion he said people needed to “start deal­ing with checkups from the neck up.”

Along­side Kennedy on the pan­el were Za­ck Rosen­burg, chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer and co-founder of the St. Bern­ard Pro­ject; Jef­frey Guen­zel, deputy com­mis­sion­er of pro­grams and ser­vices at the New Jer­sey De­part­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies; Debra Wentz, chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer for the New Jer­sey As­so­ci­ation of Men­tal Health and Ad­dic­tion Agen­cies Inc.; Mar­lene Lao-Collins, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or at the Cath­ol­ic Char­it­ies, Dio­cese of Trenton; and Ad­rienne Fessler-Belli, dir­ect­or, Dis­aster and Ter­ror­ism Branch, Di­vi­sion of Men­tal Health and Ad­dic­tion Ser­vices, New Jer­sey De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices.

Rosen­burg and Fessler-Belli talked about their ex­per­i­ences deal­ing with pre­vi­ous dis­asters. Rosen­burg and the St. Bern­ard Pro­ject lent a hand dur­ing Hur­ricane Kat­rina, while Fessler-Belli dealt with vic­tims after 9/11.

Rosen­burg poin­ted out that dur­ing the af­ter­math of Hur­ricane Kat­rina, the St. Bern­ard Pro­ject work­ers helped re­build houses, but they could not re­cre­ate homes.

“Folks in­ser­ted hope in­to the ves­sel of their house be­ing re­stored,” Rosen­burg said. “Once it was com­plete, though, people real­ized that things wer­en’t go­ing to be the same.”

The pan­el, guided by well-known New Jer­sey broad­caster Steve Adubato, ex­pan­ded on that note as mem­bers dis­cussed how the vic­tims of Sandy are reach­ing the six-month point. Wentz said res­id­ents ex­per­i­ence anxi­ety and trauma when things still aren’t back to nor­mal.

Rosen­burg re­spon­ded to that by say­ing that a path has to be clear, prompt and pre­dict­able to keep vic­tims calm through the pro­cess.

The rest of the for­um al­lowed each pan­el mem­ber to share their thoughts about the dis­aster and the af­ter­math be­fore they answered ques­tions from the audi­ence.

The for­um was sponsored by Per­form­Care New Jer­sey, an af­fil­i­ate of Ameri­Health Mercy, along with At­lantic­Care, Cath­ol­ic Char­it­ies, the New Jer­sey As­so­ci­ation of Men­tal Health and Ad­di­tion Agen­cies and Richard Stock­ton Col­lege.

In plan­ning the event, Hop­kins said it would help help people who “will have to deal with the af­ter­math of the storm days, weeks, months and years down the line.”

An Ol­ney nat­ive and La Salle Uni­versity gradu­ate, Hop­kins cred­its her par­ents with in­stilling in her the val­ues to help oth­ers.

At Dougherty, she spent a week build­ing homes in a poor area of West Vir­gin­ia and par­ti­cip­ated in the Best Bud­dies part­ner­ship with the spe­cial-needs stu­dents at Our Lady of Con­fid­ence. 

She’s also vo­lun­teered for the Fox Chase Cham­pi­ons, which of­fers a sports pro­gram for young people with spe­cial needs. In May, she plans to travel to New Or­leans to build homes with the St. Bern­ard Pro­ject with Rosen­burg.

Hop­kins hopes that Ameri­Health and oth­er agen­cies can as­sist people ex­per­i­en­cing stress and trauma to be able to get the re­sources they need dur­ing the on­go­ing re­cov­ery.

“We can help,” Hop­kins said. “It is very re­ward­ing. It’s not every day you can reach out, build net­works and help change someone’s life.”

The mis­sion of Ameri­Health Mercy, which is based in Delaware County just across the bor­der from South­w­est Phil­adelphia, is to help people get care, stay well and build healthy com­munit­ies. ••

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