by Colin Downey
The concept of “neighbors helping neighbors” is one idea that connects all Red Cross volunteers. It makes no difference if those neighbors have suffered a home fire down the street or a flood across the country.
This year, Red Cross volunteers from the Northwest Region have been called on more than ever before to hit the airport or the highway to help relief efforts in different time zones. As of November, 113 Northwest Red Crossers have deployed to relief operations outside our region in 2016, the vast majority being volunteers.
This week at a volunteer meeting in Wenatchee, three volunteers from Eastern Washington shared their most recent deployment stories. What rang through in each of their stories was how important personal connections were while deployed and how quickly they developed.
“It’s all about the relationships you make,” said Kaila Brownlee, who deployed to the Carolinas to help Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts. She worked primarily at a Red Cross evacuation shelter.
“On the first day in the shelter, it was pretty clear some people didn’t want us talking with their kids,” she said. “A few days later, mothers were handing us their babies to hold. I’d have a baby on my hip all day.”
Kaila also recalled learning it was the birthday of one person staying in the Red Cross shelter. She and her coworkers ran out and bought him a birthday cake. “He was so happy,” she said. “He told us no one had ever sang “happy birthday” to him before.”
Volunteer Garth Comm took the long way to Hurricane Matthew. He and Spokane-area volunteer Hank Wiswell drove a Red Cross emergency response vehicle (ERV) over 3,000 miles east to help with mobile feeding in the hardest hit areas of North Carolina. They crossed through 11 different states and traveled 700 miles per day, making the journey as memorable as the destination.
“It was exciting for me because I had not seen a lot of those parts of the country,” Garth said. “I had never seen peanuts growing.” On a typical 2-3 week deployment Red Crossers will only have one or two days off. On his day off, Garth rented a car and drove to the legendary Raleigh State Fair. “They had all the things you hear about,” he added. “Fried butter and those types of things. I observed but didn’t partake much.”
Volunteer Josefina Arrieta’s experience to Louisiana also included food. However, most of the time she was on the other side of the counter.
“They sent me right away to a kitchen and said ‘in a week or so, you’re going to be in charge of this kitchen’”.
“They” were right. One week later, Josefina – or “Turtle” as she goes by at the Red Cross – was managing a large feeding kitchen, preparing food and planning logistics for 25 Red Cross feeding trucks (ERVs).
After managing the kitchen for days, Josefina, who speaks English and Spanish, was needed in the impacted neighborhoods to help with communication. She worked as a translator, helping Red Cross and FEMA work with predominately Spanish-speaking communities.
“Some people were so afraid,” she said. “They were still living in trailers flooded with water. They were living in their cars.”
With “Turtle’s” kind manner and big smile, she helped break through communication barriers and a sense of trust developed soon after.
“They were so grateful,” she said. “They even cooked a special Hispanic meal for us. (Television station) Univision even came to interview me and my partners.”
When she returned to the feeding kitchen, she had worked 14 days without a break. And while her kitchen mates were thrilled to think Josefina would again take over managing the unit, at least one person spoke up with concern, hollering, “No – Turtle needs a break!”
Josefina, Garth, Kaila and all the 113 local Red Crossers who deployed this year have helped meet the demands of an unusually active period of disasters.
The Red Cross has responded to 15 major disasters in 2016, an increase of 50 percent over 2015. More than 25,000 Red Cross workers have signed onto major relief operations, helping to provide nearly 200,000 overnight shelter stays, 3.5 million meals and snacks and nearly 2 million relief items.
The hours are long and the circumstances can be challenging, but to volunteers like Josefina, giving back and helping others in need is what it’s all about. “The best experience is seeing the smiles on the kids,” she added. “You know there’s no other way they could repay you.”