City Colleges Veterans Administrator Helps in the U.S. Fight Against COVID, Brings Learnings Home to Support the City Colleges of Chicago Community

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Donell Barnett, District Director of Specialized Student Services at City Colleges of Chicago, has a longstanding association with the U.S. Army. Before joining City Colleges, Barnett spent 11 years in the Reserves and nine years on active duty in the U.S. Army. He was called upon to serve this March to join the fight against COVID, and he has since returned to City Colleges to further support its students.

In March, as COVID-19 took hold of the country, Donell Barnett, Ph.D., an active U.S. Army Reservist, was called to perform a special mission for the country. He was one of the specialized personnel assigned to COVID-19 hotspots as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s COVID response.

As a psychologist, Dr. Barnett was part of a behavioral health team sent to New York City on a rapid deployment. He received a call on a Wednesday to be ready for deployment, and on Saturday, he received orders to report for duty on Monday.

“At the time, New York City was at the height of the pandemic,” Barnett said. He added that the health care professionals were still trying to gain a better understanding of what they were dealing with. The strain on the medical personnel was unrelenting and exhausting them.

Barnett was assigned to a hospital in the South Bronx along with other healthcare professionals. Although Barnett said he had only a tourist’s knowledge of New York City, he recognized the needs of this new community and quickly went to work. He spoke highly of the hospital where he was placed as it was clear to him that the hospital was an integral part of the community.

The team Barnett was on adapted the assistance they provide to Soldiers in combat zones to the civilians who were on the front lines of the health care crisis as it was unfolding. Services provided by the behavioral health services team included setting up resilience centers, where hospital staff could rest and relax when not on duty, and providing a series of courses on stress management to help the staff cope.

Another important component, Barnett said, was Traumatic Stress First Aid. “This program,” he said, “helps people who have suffered from difficult experiences process what happened to them.” Barnett emphasized the importance of speaking about what has happened in a traumatic situation as key to recovering from it.

For many, unhealthy coping mechanisms after a traumatic event can lead to prolonged suffering, he added. Barnett encourages people to recognize that they will have a reaction to a traumatic situation and can find support with people who have similar experiences. He also advises getting a good amount of sleep and other self-care practices. If trauma becomes an ongoing problem, Barnett recommends people check in with a health care professional.

During his five weeks in New York City, Barnett’s co-workers back at City Colleges held down the fort. Barnett is also grateful for the support he received from administration at City Colleges, in particular human resources, during this period. He broke into a big smile when he said he even received a video from City Colleges staff, which boosted his morale while he was away.

Barnett’s work with the New York City Health and Hospitals continues today. He is working with them on conducting a needs assessment survey and to report the findings. Barnett anticipates the final report will be published in an academic journal when completed.

“We will all get through this as a county – as a world,” Barnett said, adding that “we need to look after each other.”

In this spirit of caring, Barnett is coordinating a series of events at City Colleges called Community Healing Days. The initiative, taking place on four days over the course of Fall 2020, is an opportunity for the CCC community to connect during this time of increased distance and an unrelenting need for closeness and connection. It is intended to offer opportunities to engage around the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism.

The first of the Community Healing Days events, held October 29th and titled Of Healing and Hope: A Memorial, was an interfaith vigil to bring the CCC community together, mourn losses, and support each other in grief. The second on October 30th was a panel discussion on Racial Justice in Higher Education.

There are two more events: one on November 19th titled CCC in Action: The History of Chicago Activism Discussion and Community Action Fair (learn more at https://www.ccc.edu/departments/Pages/communityhealingdays.aspx). The final event is Healing Through the Arts: A Visual Art Gallery, planned for December 11th (learn more at https://www.ccc.edu/departments/Pages/communityhealingdays.aspx).

Many thanks to Dr. Barnett for his ongoing service to the country and Chicago.