By Janee Law
Huntington resident Tom Hlenski returned home Wednesday after a weeklong stint in Orlando, aiding those affected by the June 12 shooting at Pulse nightclub that killed 49 people.
Hlenski, who has been volunteering with the American Red Cross since 2005, said he did not hesitate to assist in the aftermath.
“Week one into a disaster, people are still very numb, people are still grieving. They’re still doing funerals. There are still people injured in the hospitals. There’s a lot of recovery left,” Hlenski, 65, who is a volunteer disaster mental health practitioner with the Long Island Red Cross.
Hlenski, who is also a psychotherapist with offices in Huntington and Great Neck, said his role is to support those affected by disasters as they recover emotionally and and psychologically.
In Orlando, Hlenski worked in the Family Assistance Center, connecting victims, their families and people in the community with various resources provided by federal, state and local agencies.
In addition, Hlenski also teamed up with therapy dogs, of New Jersey-based Therapy Dog International, who are highly trained disaster stress relief dogs.
Hlenski and the therapy dogs visited the City of Orlando Fire Station, which is a short walk from Pulse nightclub, to provide comfort therapy to first responders.
“One of the things a [disaster mental health practitioner] in the red cross looks at is both taking care of the community as well as taking care of our volunteers staff who are exposed in a high trauma situation like this,” Hlenski said. “Part of the job was to bring those dogs into places where the volunteers were working hard and a lot of the staff were working hard and bring them stress relief.”
Hlenski said he also visited memorial sites, including Lake Beauty outside of Orlando Regional Medical Center; the Doctor Philip Center for the Performing Arts; and Orlando City Hall. At each of the sites, he spoke with relatives of victims and those affected within the community.
He encouraged those affect to connect with local agencies and the Red Cross, which can assist in the transition and the healing process.
Getting back into a routine, staying active and talking about it are beneficial coping mechanisms, he added.
“We had to reassure that everyone is doing the best they can to ensure security and safety,” he said. “These are the kinds of things that help us all sleep at night a little bit better.”
Though his stay was just one week long, Hlenski said he learned something major about the Orlando community.
“The strength of that city of Orlando, and it’s determination to move forward, is rather strong. It’s impressive,” he said. “The community came together in a very positive way, and is clearly transitioning to manage this without the external supports that were coming down from wherever.
“Orlando is going to continue this response on its own and it’s capable of doing that.”