By Gabriel Martinez, AmeriCorps serving the American Red Cross NW Region
I was heading out for a party on New Year’s Eve, I received a call from the Red Cross chapter in Everett. A three-alarm apartment fire occurred a few hours earlier, forcing more than 100 people out their homes. Many of the residents had nowhere to go. “We need Spanish speaking volunteers to help in the Red Cross shelter, I was told. I heard the urgency in the woman’s voice over the phone. So I drove to Everett the next morning.
I entered the shelter and explained why I was there. Lots of people started talking at once, mostly saying some variation of “You speak Spanish? Oh good.”
Many of the shelter residents spoke Spanish as their first language. So I was immediately put to work setting up more beds and translating for clients and volunteers. I followed a nurse to an adjacent room where I translated her instructions regarding medication to a woman with a burn on her arm. The injured woman listened intently and then asked to leave the shelter. She explained that a friend was looking after her kids for the day because she and her husband did not want to expose their children to life in a shelter just yet. “May I bring some lunch leftovers to my kids?” she asked the nurse in Spanish. “They haven’t eaten yet.”
Of course, the nurse said yes.
About a week later I returned to the shelter. One of my trainings about working in a shelter encouraged volunteers to take time to simply talk with clients. So I started a conversation in Spanish with a woman nearby. She held a baby who was barely three weeks old.
“Is he yours?” I asked.
“No, he belongs to her,” she said as she pointed to a woman a few beds away.
“Do you know her?”
“A little. I thought she needed a rest, so I offered to hold him.”
The next man I talked to looked young, maybe a few years older than me.
I asked him how he felt. He told me that most of the volunteers spoke with his wife because she knew more English than him. Then he told me about the fire. He explained that he invited other Spanish-speaking families from the apartment complex over on New Years’ Eve for a party. They were having fun until someone smelled smoke. Things got chaotic, he continued, but he was able to get everyone out safely.
More than two weeks after the fire, I returned to the shelter again. Only three families remained. I swept and vacuumed the shelter as the clients took a mid-afternoon nap.
As I swept, I noticed that a mother and father had pushed their cots together. They fell asleep holding hands. Between them their toddler sipped from a bottle.