By Gordon Williams
Some 90 percent of Red Cross responders are volunteers — giving their own time and effort to help others in need. This article will introduce you to Melissa Burdg of Mead WA who pitched in to help the Red Cross big-time, even before becoming a full-fledged volunteer. “I am still waiting for my background check to clear so I can officially become a Red Cross volunteer,” Melissa says.
Washington’s 2021 wildfire season has set records for severity. The state experienced more wildfires by mid-August than in all of 2020. It has taken all the workers the Red Cross could recruit to open and staff shelters where evacuees are housed. A Red Cross “surge campaign” is underway to recruit more volunteers for shelter duty and disaster response.
No one had to recruit Melissa. She came on her own to the Red Cross shelter in Deer Park WA. The shelter opened in response to the Ford Corkscrew fire in Spokane County. Melissa had lived in Deer Park for 11 years, and suddenly there was a fire in her community. “When the fire came close to home, I thought that is where I need to be,” she says. She thought of volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter, but eventually settled on the Red Cross.
While it is her first time with the Red Cross, Melissa has a long history of volunteering. “I have been a volunteer for various things for more than 10 years,” she says. She credits a grandmother back in Ohio for instilling in her the desire to serve. “I went to church with grandma,” she says. “After the service, we would go out into the community and help anyone who needed help.”
Much of her volunteering has involved feeding those in need. She has delivered food to shelters for the homeless. She has cooked Thanksgiving meals for the homeless. Her mother volunteers at a food bank, and Melissa has helped there. Her thought was that she might help feed those in the Dark Park shelter. Her role has grown into much more than that.
Carol Janssens, the Red Cross volunteer who manages the Deer Park shelter, says she asked about meals when she first arrived at the shelter. “I was told not to worry, that there was someone who was taking care of the meals,” she says. That “someone” was Melissa. “I have only arranged three meals and Melissa has arranged all the others,” Carol says.
Melissa has shown a knack for getting local food stores and restaurants to donate food to the shelter. “She has bought food out of her own pocket and used it to feed those in the shelter,” says Carol. Melissa says she goes to the shelter nearly every day. “I’ll be going there today,” she says. Once there, she will ask Carol what the shelter needs. Then she will venture into the community to collect what is needed.
Carol is a veteran of Red Cross disaster responses. Before the Deer Park shelter opened, she had been deployed to wildfires in Oregon and California. California lasted only a day, though. “They said they needed me back in Washington because of wildfires [in our state] so my deployment to California was cancelled,” she says.
Shelter duty can be rigorous at any time, but it has been particularly taxing this year. After a year in which most disaster responses were virtual, using hotel rooms for housing evacuees, the Red Cross has resumed “congregate” sheltering. That means opening shelters in schools and churches, and staffing the shelters with Red Cross volunteers.
Carol is pleased to be back in a congregate shelter. “They let you get to know your clients,” she says. On the other hand, she says that “none of our volunteers had worked in a congregate shelter before, and the whole staff had to be trained.”
Now that they are trained, Carol says the whole crew — nine volunteers once and six volunteers now — has performed splendidly. “They are fantastic,” she says.
Melissa, meanwhile, has taken her efforts at the shelter beyond foraging for food. She noticed that one resident had blisters on her hands from propelling her wheelchair. “I went and got her gloves,” Melissa says. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it means so much to the clients.” On the day that we talked, one shelter resident was having a birthday. Melissa had arranged for cupcakes to be sent to the shelter for a birthday party.
Melissa says her reward for all she does is the gratitude expressed by those she is aiding. “What we do means so much to them,” she says. Working as hard as she does helps Melissa cope with the death of her husband from a sudden heart attack. “Being able to help people is what keeps me going,” she says.
The Red Cross goes through an extensive process in vetting people for being volunteers. That is where Melissa’s Red Cross application stands. “She did sign up to become a Red Cross volunteer and we are really happy with that,” Carol says. If becoming a Red Cross volunteer appeals to you, visit the website www.redcross.org/volunteertoday.