Rose Olmsted of Albert Lea has always been there for others during difficult times. It's a value she learned as a child, accompanying her mother to deliver food to neighbors during holidays.

"That meant that if somebody didn't have somewhere to go for the holidays, you invited them to your home, and you included them in your holiday meal," Olmsted said. "It means if someone needed a place to stay, if someone needed someone to listen to them, you did that."

Now retired after a 38-year career with Freeborn County, including as a social worker and social services supervisor, Olmsted continues her mission in a capacity few could have imagined just a few years ago.

As the United States surpassed a grim recent milestone of 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19, Olmsted continues to take calls for the Red Cross Virtual Family Assistance Center (VFAC).

The center, which began operations in the spring of 2020, connects callers from around the country with resources to assist them with anything from financial support to grief groups.

"Most of the calls … are coming from underserved populations," Olmsted said. "So, folks who may not have a cellphone, folks who may not have internet, folks who may not have much of a support system.

"They may be in a rural state, very isolated. They may be struggling with depression, anxiety, especially with COVID."

"We don't preclude other people from calling," added VFAC director John Weaver, "but our primary target audience initially was families that lost someone to COVID."

Despite vaccines in greater supply and a hopeful air about a return to normalcy as early as this summer, the virtual condolence center remains essential, receiving as many as 30 calls a day between Olmsted and other volunteers.

Olmsted's focus is mental health. Other volunteers take on spiritual care, physical health and support for daily living.

"When people are in the midst of trauma, they don't always remember," Olmsted said. "They're not always able to maneuver all these things they've got to maneuver after the death of a loved one. So we help them with that."

Besides completing Red Cross training, many volunteers have experience in fields aligned with their professions, such as clergy members, therapists and nurses.

Olmsted spreads the word about the center in areas of the state with high death rates but a lack of social services. Responders at the center can input callers' ZIP codes on the Red Cross website, or use "Aunt Bertha," a social services network, to find local resources.

E-mails can also be sent and Spanish-language interpreters are available. Group listening sessions are available for front-line workers, as well as training sessions for organizations or community groups on coping and psychological first aid.

About 180 Red Cross volunteers have helped take calls or instruct classes with VFAC, Weaver said.

Olmsted began volunteering with the Red Cross in 2009 as a disaster mental health worker, reaching out to support people after events such as fires. She says she volunteers anywhere from 40 to 70 hours a month taking calls, working on the VFAC outreach team, or helping as a training instructor.

"Because of my background, I have a real passion for working with people and helping people and connecting with individuals and families," Olmsted said. "So it was an easy call to go through the training and become connected with Red Cross."

Some callers are just looking for someone to take the time to listen to them. Others are wondering how they'll cover the funeral costs of family members who died from COVID. In some cases, spiritual care volunteers might hold virtual memorial services.

Other volunteers are equally moved by the importance of the work. "It's provided me with a real-time sense of how profound and significant this pandemic has impacted this country — and by extension the entire world," said shift supervisor Michael Flood.

Despite the heavy nature of the work, Olmsted said she has huge respect for the program and the support it's providing. She credits her mother and the people who have been there for her with the foundation she's built to be there for others.

"But it ties back to her professional work, her capacity to work with victims, work with people who are on the downside of life," said Olmsted's friend Joel Xavier.

"She can hear them. And a lot of us, they can talk, but we're not hearing. And she has that ability."

To access the American Red Cross Virtual Family Assistance Center: People without internet access can call 833-492-0094 for help between 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday Central Time to speak with a trained Red Cross volunteer in English or Spanish. Callers in immediate crisis should call 911 or a hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Callers also can find crisis support through the national Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990.

Imani Cruzen is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.