Zonia celebrates her 10 years as a Red Cross volunteer staffing multiple shelters in the 2015 Washington wildfire season.

By Eric Rothenberg

“What can I do?”

That was Zonia Quero Ziada’s first question when she walked in the Red Cross office 10 years ago after seeing news pictures from the New Orleans Superdome. It was September 2005, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A month later, with her Red Cross training complete, Zonia was on her way to Louisiana. “I needed to do something,” she said.

Yet no amount of training could prepare her for what she found and the emotions that followed when she arrived in Baton Rouge. “Looking at the magnitude of the operation, I had tears in my eyes,” Zonia recalls. “Just to think that everyone here is a little nobody, just like me, who takes three weeks out of their lives to help others. It was an overwhelming experience.”

While the sense of contributing a small part to the greater Red Cross effort stirred her emotions, helping those directly impacted by natural disasters has been most rewarding. “It’s very moving, very humbling.” When people are facing a disaster, she adds, “They want someone to acknowledge them, to listen, to be there.”

Today, she is trained in sheltering, feeding, casework, and as an interpreter and Zonia says preparing to help in times of crisis go beyond what’s taught in a classroom. “I’ve learned the value of the hug – and sometimes that’s all the people need. That may be most important.”

After a month in Baton Rouge she spent another month in Lafayette, La., helping those affected by Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

Zonia, a vibrant mother of four and grandmother of five from Caracas, Venezuela, has been called to more than 30 deployments around the country. She has, responded to hurricanes Ike in San Antonio, Texas, and Sandy in Atlantic City, NJ, to the Outer Banks in North Carolina and now, for the third time, to the wildfires in Washington.

This year’s wildfire disaster has grown into the largest, most challenging wildfire in Washington state history and Zonia’s experience has paid off. She’s played an instrumental role in the Red Cross sheltering operations, having a hand in opening three of 12 shelters in 10 days as fires erupted across the state.

“I’ve been driving all over, very close to the fires, opening the shelters — going one way and then another,” she said, recalling just three hours of sleep in the first 48 hours on the job. In the Pateros shelter, she reconnected with evacuated residents she had met last year. “

“It’s nice to see people who come back and recognize you, hug you, and thank you for being here again,” she said. “Working with the Red Cross and helping people holds a special place in my heart and I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my free time.”

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