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Red Cross volunteer has helped people across nation who have lost loved ones to COVID-19

Rose Olmsted’s work with the Red Cross changed with the onset of COVID-19.

The former Freeborn County social worker shifted from serving a three-state region that included Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota to serving the nation.

The phone line is the lifeline she and Red Cross’ Virtual Assistance Center offers.

“I’m taking calls from anyone in the U.S. who wants resources or information, having just lost typically one or more family members to COVID-19,” she said.

The Integrated Care Condolence team is made up of volunteers experienced in behavioral health, spiritual care and health services. Olmsted’s focus is on mental health.

She recently took a call from a young woman who wanted to talk about losing both of her parents in the last two months. Both were in their 60s.

Olmsted spent close to an hour on the phone with her, mostly listening but also connecting the woman with a local counselor.

“COVID-19 itself is difficult enough, but then to deal with additional burdens” like funerals, Olmsted said, “it’s too much for most people.”

That experience and soft touch is needed.

“Rose’s dedication to taking these calls is truly extraordinary,” said Melanie Tschida, executive director of the American Red Cross of southeast Minnesota. “Her compassion is evident to each caller with whom she speaks, and her depth of experience gives her a perspective that is so valuable when people are struggling.”

The care condolence also provides training and support groups for businesses and for frontline workers. Individual and group options are available.

Olmsted, who facilitates some of the sessions, called this an underutilized resource for southern Minnesota.

Those looking for immediate help can download two free resource guides: Guidebook for Grieving Families and Resources for Community Leaders.

“Everyone should know those are available,” Olmsted said.

Outreach efforts are also underway, focusing on underserved populations.

And none of that work is being done outside of volunteers’ and workers’ homes.

“Many of the people we talk to don’t have cell phones or internet access,” Olmsted said, “so we’re providing them information about as many resources as possible.”

That means Olmsted and others are continually learning and building their lists of resources. Regular calls with other volunteers allow the group to share resource information.

A recent task included researching information on virtual grief groups. Some people Olmsted has talked to, she said, have lost as many as five family members to COVID-19.

“The hardest thing is the people who aren’t able to be with their loved ones when they’re dying,” Olmsted said. “The grief issues are so significant and so different than people have experienced before.”

The virtual team was established at the onset of the pandemic, and Olmsted has been busy with it since. She puts in up to 60 hours a month as a volunteer, all from her home.

“Because of COVID, I’m staying home myself, so it’s worked,” she said. “(But) I’m looking forward to getting outside and to summer.”

The work is undeniably hard, as it should be, Olmsted said.

“You know what? There’s great rewards from it,” she said. “If you have the passion for serving the underserved, it’s very rewarding to help these people calling in for help.”

It doesn’t go unnoticed, as well.

“We’re grateful for her willingness to share her many gifts with these individuals at this most difficult time in their lives,” said Tschida, the regional director.

Olmsted says she is eager to take those calls as long as it’s needed.

“It’s a privilege to be on this grief journey with the COVID-19 survivors,” she said. “I don’t always have the answers, but some people simply need someone to listen to them about how painful this is.

“For me, that’s easy.”

For more information, visit redcross.org/virtual-family-assistance-center.