Staring down train cars and tracks washed out by Colorado flooding, September 2013.
I joined the ranks of the American Red Cross about two and a half years ago following a less than ideal “vacation” to New York City and an accidental visit with a really moody storm we called Sandy. Left without power, hot water, and really anything in the way of food for five additional unplanned days, my wife and I had it so much easier than most.
Still, our circumstances did pose their challenges. It was during those days where I first really noticed so many strangers banding together to help each other out. Those with power in their homes and businesses ran extension cords out to the sidewalks so people could charge their phones. Restaurants welcomed the masses in for relief from the storm. At one point I found an outlet in a restaurant ceiling where I let my dying phone dangle like a Christmas ornament for hours until it was revived.
I never encountered the Red Cross while I was there as we just weren’t in the areas of greatest need. But I knew they were out there and all around. Witnessing such an outpouring of support from every corner of the city, there was no doubt in my mind that I would pursue that sort of humanitarian endeavor when I returned home.
Eventually, my feet hit the ground of my sunny California and I was off to become a volunteer. I was familiar with a lot of the work of the Red Cross thanks to my job in emergency management, so that seemed like a great place to start. And as luck would have it, there just so happened to be a staff position available. Not really looking for a job at the time but never one to question the universe, I threw my hat in the ring and actually ended up getting hired!
Fast forward two and a half years of the greatest work years of my life and you have one of the strongest, lifelong supporters of the Red Cross. I say “one of” because there is no doubt of the competition for “biggest fan” among our thousands of volunteers and supporters across the country and around the world.
Being a part of this mission has been life changing, and here are just a few examples of why:
Colorado Floods – 2013
My first deployment. My hometown of Sacramento is prone to flooding when we’re not trying to imitate a desert, so I’ve seen some local disasters in my time. Colorado was the first time I got up close and personal with communities ravaged by a disaster. Communities ripped from their foundations and floated down stream like rudderless boats. Water lines from creeks you could typically step over reached well higher than my six foot frame. Historic amounts of rain water cascaded down the Rocky Mountains with such force, it turned trees into toothpicks, crumpled paved roads into mud, leveled homes and took lives. The devastation was unreal.
The Red Cross was there. From the first raindrops and flood watches, Red Cross volunteers were ready to look after their neighbors. As the situation worsened, more volunteers with compassion in their hearts and expert training, swooped in from all corners of the country to bring relief to this flooded state. The hours for everyone were long, the work was unceasing, and yet no one seemed to tire. No one seemed to complain. There was simply a passion and a drive to get out there and help those who needed it in any way we could.
What probably struck me the most and what I would quickly find is quite commonplace is 1.) disaster-affected community members wanting to help others despite their own circumstances and turning to the Red Cross to help them do so, and 2.) the number of volunteers who want to extend their stay and continue the work! Disaster deployments are typically two weeks straight working 12-14 hours a day.
I was inspired that the desire to help could so easily trump the grueling pace and exhaustion – so many put their own lives on hold to help get the lives of others back on track. I’ll never forget it.
California Wildfires – 2014
Right in my own backyard, wildfires raged all year long. Literally, from January 1 it seemed we were responding to a wildfire (in addition to our rising rate of home fires) nearly every day. In fact, when May hit, that was exactly what was happening in our region. Over the course of the next six months, as our most famous quote from the time stated, “there was only an 18-hour period where our Red Cross volunteers didn’t have at least one wildfire evacuation shelter open.”
The ongoing drought, the wind, the heat combined with accidents, carelessness, and outright criminal behavior brought about a wildfire onslaught we felt would never end. And yet, despite the countless hours needed to shelter and feed endangered communities, the Red Cross volunteers never wavered. When and where there was a need, they were there without fail. When ordered to get some rest after unbroken days and weeks on the job, they resisted, ultimately relented, and were right back to work the second their mandated rest period was over.
Once again community members turned to the Red Cross as a means to help their neighbors. In fact, during the Boles Fire in Weed, California, one woman approached me in a parking lot as I got out of a Red Cross vehicle and asked how she might volunteer. After providing some direction for her she informed me that she lost her own home to the fire only the day before. After losing HER OWN HOUSE, she wanted to volunteer and help others because she saw the great work we were doing and wanted to get involved. How powerful is that?!
Oso Mudslide – 2014
Unimaginable. Without warning, a small mountain community in Washington is erased by a catastrophic mudslide. Dozens are missing or injured. First responders and volunteers are part of the stricken community. They are now searching for their friends, family, and neighbors, some of whom were seen only minutes before tragedy struck. Time to go to work!
Red Cross shelters were established in the towns of Arlington and Darrington, two towns connected by a single roadway that no longer existed. They served as a refuge for residents who have lost their homes or can’t return. They are a point where first responders can provide updates to the community. And they were points where the heart of the Red Cross shined so bright.
Beyond shelter, beyond food and water, beyond beds and blankets – all of which are staples of Red Cross disaster relief – the compassion and care every volunteer committed to these devastated communities was awe-inspiring. Volunteers welcomed shocked residents and heartbroken family members with their gentle spirit and did whatever it took to provide comfort and care. Many tears were shed and hugs were shared over a hurt that can never be forgotten.
Despite the daunting gravity of the disaster, never once did a volunteer hesitate to jump in and be the helping hand to lift the heavy emotional burden, if only for a moment. In life’s worst moments, we see the best of humanity rise up.
Christmas Eve Apartment Fire – 2013
I have responded to a number of home fires, and all of them stand out for one reason or another. This one struck me in a rather unique way.
It’s Christmas Eve morning and it’s freezing, as it often is at that time of year. There’s no snow on the ground because, well, California. An early morning fire that started in a maintenance area has destroyed four apartment units. For these families, Christmas is effectively over. Trees, presents, and any other surprises have tragically gone up in smoke. Fortunately, everyone got out safely.
When I got on the scene, our Disaster Action Team volunteers were already working diligently to assist the residents and had been for some time. It was a busy scene. Fire crews and equipment scattered all around, news media scurrying about looking for a shot and the story, the displaced residents scrambling to salvage whatever they could from their homes, and a collection of neighbors watching the show unfold outside their front doors.
As more time passed, the media packed up their cameras and moved on. With the fire out and safety restored, the fire department stored their gear and headed to their next call. Neighbors soon retreated into their heated apartments, and the scene fell eerily calm. The only sounds were those of our volunteers speaking with the residents working to get them a warm place to spend their Christmas Eve and guide them through the next steps of recovery.
There were no friends or family rushing to the rescue of these people. They didn’t have insurance. The apartment managers were not swift to respond. I looked around and realized that without our Red Cross volunteers and those who support disaster relief, four families would have been left with absolutely nothing, no place to go, and no clue how to begin the process of moving forward – all on Christmas!
Every single day, whatever the need, wherever the need, no matter what, the Red Cross is standing by and ready to help. If that call doesn’t come, we’re still sitting by the phone. If the call comes in but no help is needed, we’ll still show up just in case. And when we start hearing words like “historic” and “unprecedented” as we have so often for the last several weeks out of Texas, rest assured we have volunteers around the country ready to get to work and touch lives. Thanks to their compassion and dedication, and to all those supporting the humanitarian mission of the Red Cross throughout the year, they’re able to do just that!
It’s a little wordy, sure, but there are very few things that are this close to my heart. Anyone can play armchair quarterback (and they certainly do), but it’s quite another thing to get in the game and see how things really happen. The support matters. Despite what any detractors may claim, the support has very real and meaningful impact. The work is complex, challenging, and so often thankless, but no matter the obstacle the objective is to ALWAYS do whatever it takes to meet the needs of residents, communities, and countries touched by tragedy. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it countless times. To see the Red Cross in action is one of the great joys of my life and I am honored to be even a small part of such wonderful work.
Despite misguided criticisms and ludicrous claims, you’ll find no millionaires here. What you will find is a staff working for the mission, not the paycheck, alongside thousands of dedicated volunteers – all committed to delivering help and hope to those in need every single day. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked, the cheapest I’ve ever worked, and the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
THANK YOU, RED CROSS VOLUNTEERS AND SUPPORTERS, FOR GIVING SO MUCH OF YOURSELVES IN SERVICE TO OTHERS!!