When Indian River Central Schools teacher Amanda Burnard was diagnosed with breast cancer in fall 2018, she drew strength from the love and support of her family and friends while being guided through extensive treatment from her trusted team of doctors.
But Burnard also had something extra in her corner — her union — which provided not only critical assistance as she navigated the uncertainty of her harrowing experience, but also some very badly needed peace of mind.
“I was processing a lot of information and knew my treatment was going to be hard on my body,” said Burnard, who teaches first grade.
“I use a lot of energy teaching and anything less would be a disservice to my students. I knew I intended to take time off while undergoing my chemo treatments. I looked into how it works, and was overwhelmed.”
That’s when she reached out to NYSUT’s Watertown Regional Office, where labor relations specialists Carmine Inserra and Mike Cocco helped her maneuver through the intricacies of sick leave and put her in touch with Indian River Education Association Co-President Cheryl Smith. The union ensured Burnard had as much paid sick time as possible, and set up fundraisers to help cover her travel expenses associated with treatment.
“The support I received was amazing,” said Burnard. “Being able to take the time off and come back to my position made it one less thing to worry about. I am so lucky and appreciative.”
But something else happened, too, something Burnard never imagined: She unknowingly became the inspiration for the creation of local union crisis response teams across Northern New York.
Organization skills kick in “As I processed the shock and despair of Amanda’s diagnosis, it occurred to me that this would not be the last friend or member who would be faced with a crisis,” said Cocco.
Cocco and Inserra kicked around ideas and concluded that rather than “putting fires out one at a time,” there was a need to be proactive. So, they organized a regional meeting at which they asked every Watertownarea local to establish a crisis response team of their own.
More than 60 members attended and so, too, did Ani Shahinian from NYSUT Social Services, among others.
“The response was overwhelming,” said Cocco, adding multiple representatives from 24 of NYSUT’s 26 area locals attended. The idea behind the teams, he said, is to have in place resources in which contacts, information and services could be shared that would help members in a time of crisis.
A cultural change
Pat Sheehan, president of the Carthage Teachers Association, said the establishment of a crisis response team has “changed the culture” in her local.
“The response has been overwhelming, and it becomes contagious,” Sheehan said. “People want to help each other. And it is comforting to know that if someone does have a problem, there are people in our own unit that can help.”
The 334-member CTA has at least three crisis team members in each of the district’s five buildings, ready to guide members in crisis by providing information on where to receive services ranging from medical, to mental health, to legal and financial. The CTA also has discovered that, in establishing its team, the definition of “crisis,” extends beyond the traditional medical emergency or health scare. Team members have provided colleagues with information on where to turn to in matters of divorce. They have helped each other deal with the passing of a student in the district, guided co-workers on how to set up health care proxies, helped families pay for the costs of travel and lodging during medical care and even advised young members on establishing a 403(b).
“We are building a cohort of selfcare for our members,” said Danielle Carr, the CTA’s recording secretary and a seventh-grade social studies teacher. “We are always talking about ‘the children first.’ And, they are first.
But in order to put them first, we have to be healthy in mind, body and soul.
When you are the one in crisis, you don’t necessarily have the energy to do the things that the team can do.
Now, the member in crisis just has to focus their energies on their immediate family or their immediate selves.”
CTA member Denise Rivers, a school social worker and counselor, said the crisis team also helps ensure students’ needs continue to be met.
“If we are not well mentally, then we are going to bring that to our day working with our kids,” said Rivers.
“We have a tremendous amount of services in this area. But there is a lack of knowledge about their existence. We are now in a position to take a look at what services there are in our community for our members.
And, knowing we can talk amongst each other and gain that information of where we can go is enough to make you feel just a little bit better and allow you to perform better.”
Many services available Carr, who serves as the CTA’s regional representative, said what’s been particularly enlightening is the extent of crisis services available to NYSUT members, especially through Shahinian.
“There’s a Library of Congress in her brain. She is just phenomenal.
If you’re in Buffalo, or Albany or Carthage, Ani can get you a resource.
She is knowledgeable statewide, and if she doesn’t have the information right there, she will find the information for you and get back to you almost immediately.”
Meanwhile, Sheehan said the CTA crisis team has also helped getting new members involved in their union.
“Some of the people on our team, this is their first so-called union commitment that they have made. This grabbed and inspired people, and it brought them on board. It’s not something that is threatening. It draws people in because it is about people. It’s about helping others.”
Burnard — who is cancer free but still faces two surgeries — said despite never intending to be the inspiration for Watertown’s crisis response network, she was overwhelmed to learn of their existence.
“My heart was filled with love, appreciation and pride,” she said. “This is going to help a countless amount of people.”
Carthage TA members Danielle Carr, Pat Sheehan and Denise Rivers discuss the Crisis Response Team program at Carthage CS. Photo by Andrew Watson.
START YOUR OWN CRISIS RESPONSE TEAM
Interested in establishing a crisis response team in your local? Here’s the approach used in the Watertown region:
- Gauge the interest. Local presidents were asked if there was interest in a crisis response team to help friends and colleagues facing tragedy.
- Establish a team. This does not mean recreating the wheel. Locals may be able to start by adding to their existing structure. Solicit volunteers. Be sure to talk to members who faced a crisis in the past. They have a unique perspective to offer.
- Come up with a crisis response plan. The plan should identify necessary resources in terms of contacts and materials. Who will be the contact for each member of the bargaining unit?
- Tap into the expertise of professionals. Contact your NYSUT LRS, NYSUT Social Services (call 800-342-9810, ext. 6206 or email firstname.lastname@example.org), your health insurance provider’s representative, etc., for assistance.
- Compile your resources. Create a “binder” ready to be distributed face to face, emailed, or through an accessible online database.
- The Watertown Regional Office distributed the following resources to get local unions started: • The local union contract. Attention should be paid to sick leave, family sick leave and the sick leave bank (if applicable). • Family Medical Leave Act fact sheet. • The State Teachers’ Retirement System Guide for Disability Retirement Decisions. • The State Employees’ Retirement System Applying for Disability Retirement publication. • The American Cancer Society Help for Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers guide. • Health insurance third party administrator information.
Each team with its unique makeup of members will have different ideas on what to add. It’s a living list of resources and will surely be added to as unforseen crises unfold.