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Resilience: The Ability to Recover from Misfortune

There were more than 3,000 identifiable victims of the Sept. 11 juggernaut of terrorism. But the invisible victims are still surfacing like the oil bubbles from the USS Arizona more than 60 years after the commencement of the last worldwide struggle for democratic principles.

Those victims have been walking among us every day for the past year. They represent the entire quilt that is American society — every race, creed and ethnic group; both sexes; all ages; and all economic strata. They are the first walking wounded of World War Terrorism.

But, there is also a social/psychological MASH unit working day and night to heal their wounds and strengthen their resolve. That unit is known as Project Resilience.

"This project is directly related to Sept. 11. When this area was declared a disaster area as a result of the attack on the Pentagon, it became eligible for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA)," said Tricia Bassing, Alexandria Project Resilience, outreach team leader.

Operated under the aegis of the Alexandria Community Services Board, the local Project Resilience is providing people who live and work in the city with free services that include individual and group counseling, resource referral, cross-cultural community-building activities, and education on such topics as stress management, emergency preparedness, grief, loss and trauma.

AS PART OF THE larger Community Resilience Project (CRP) of Northern Virginia, it is administered in the city through the state's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services (SAMSHA) and its Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). It is also operative in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Locally there is a staff of 15 working from the project's headquarters at 720 N. St. Asaph St. This includes five outreach workers, speaking nine languages, and representing seven countries, according to Bassing.

"Each community project is different and tailored to meet the needs of that particular situation," Bassing explained. Since its inception on Nov. 1, 2001, Alexandria's project has provided 3,382 counseling and educational sessions to individuals and groups involving nearly 30,000 participants.

"We have received a FEMA grant of $722,000 to cover the period up to Dec. 15 of this year," said Deborah Warren, project manager. "We got $121,000 to cover the first 60 days of startup costs. That was followed by an $84,000 bridge grant and then the main grant of $517,000."

THE STATE HAS applied for, and has been granted a six-month extension by FEMA to keep the project operative until June 15, 2003, Warren verified. "The state's application is for an additional $13 million under the category of victims of violent crimes," she said.

In the aftermath of the attacks, people suffered a wide range of problems, according to Soffia Fraser, one of the project's outreach workers. "The whole logistics of life was changed for many," she said.

"This was particularly true of many recent immigrants who came here thinking this was a safe haven from the things they had experienced in their native countries. It has also had a very bad effect on them economically," Fraser said.

Ephrem Gebremariam, another outreach worker, pointed out, "Many in the immigrant population work in the tourism and service industries, like hotels, restaurants and taxi drivers. They were particularly hard hit by the economic downturn."

"There has also been a real change in attitude. The message is immigrants aren't welcome. This is very real in the muslim community," he said.

BASSING NOTED that the raids on Muslim homes in certain areas of Northern Virginia has trickled down to Alexandria. "In many cases, the sense of security has been taken away," Bassing said.

"Just by our being here and being part of the federal government, working through the city government, it shows we care," she said. "We give information on how to secure economic aid and what resources are available. In terms of counseling, we are here to listen and advise on the needs of everyday life."

Most of the staff members work in the field around the clock wherever people will listen. "We work in coffee shops, in libraries, schools, churches, mosques and ethnic markets. It's a combination of scheduled meetings and off-the-cuff encounters. We even go door-to-door," both Fraser and Gebremariam emphasized.

"There have been all types of reactions to the events of Sept. 11 — sadness, anger, anxiety, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, fatigue and isolation," Bassing said. "Men and women have been equally affected. But the most affected seem to have been the youth and elderly."

Although Project Resilience was initiated as a result of the attacks on the Pentagon and New York City last year, the crisis-counseling efforts being offered through the program have been in existence nationally for more than 20 years, according to its literature. Its purpose is the same — to assist those affected by large-scale disaster to cope with extraordinary stress caused by such catastrophes and to help individuals return to their pre-disaster levels of functioning.

At the heart of the program is the belief that survivors, rescue workers and others affected by the disaster may need help in understanding that their distress is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, according to SAMHSA. Instead of waiting for people to seek help, the program focuses on reaching out to them.

An integral part of the endeavor is to utilize paraprofessionals to avoid the stigma often associated with mental health services, program leaders explain. Everyone from religious leaders to social club volunteers to community activists has been recruited to staff the various CRPs.

BEING FROM THE impacted areas themselves, these counselors undergo training that orients them to the FEMA/CMHS counseling model. They then fan out through the communities to provide information and assistance on a wide range of needs.

"Clinical experience has shown that in the wake of traumatic events, such as those on September 11, the most effective intervention is short-term individual and group counseling, according to New York State Mental health Commissioner James L. Stone.

Under Project Resilience, crisis counselors provide a variety of services throughout the community, even in individual homes. These include: listening to individual concerns; assisting in reducing additional stress by organizing and prioritizing day-to-day tasks; and helping individuals to understand and recognize the range of emotions related to such events.

As part of the one year anniversary of 9/11, Alexandria's Project Resilience has concentrated their public program on three activities. A display at Market Square on Sept. 10, The Labyrinth Peace Walk at Waterfront Park on Sept. 11, and a one-act play entitled, "Candle in the Night." It will be held at the Alexandria Red Cross Chapter house on Sept. 13.

The essence of Project Resilience is to help people cope with the effects of the September 11 attacks, mentally, emotionally, physically, and economically. But there is another element. It was summed up by Laverne Austin, the Alexandria project's administrative officer. "This is a war. People have to understand that. And it is a war we must win. That's why this project is so essential," she insisted.