Thursday, August 2, 2012

Journal to Home: Road to Relief

At the beginning of July, 30 volunteers from the Panhandle to DFW deployed to help reliefs efforts in Montana, Florida and Colorado. Anita Laffey, who spent 16 days in Colorado after wildfires burned across Waldo Canyon, shares a day from her journal about the ups and downs while riding in back of the response truck, meeting and caring for people facing utter devastation. 

Written by Anita Laffey, volunteer contributor

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Anita Laffey, Disaster Mental Health Services volunteer
Photo by Maru Del Real-Gwin, volunteer
It's Sunday. Day of Rest. Not for the Red Cross team though and certainly not for those we are going to meet today either. 

This fire is the most costly in the state's history so far, destroying 346 homes—that's nearly one for every day of the year. Today though, we bring hope and help into that battle zone. Since it's Sunday, we'll begin our route at 12:30 p.m. instead of first thing in the morning, doesn't mean a lighter day, just more people to visit with in fewer hours. I sit in the back of the response truck by the serving window, squished into bucket seats that are nearly engulfed by all the free supplies we'll soon be handing out. 

We don’t care who needs our assistance--local residents whose homes are now cinders;  their guilt-ridden neighbors whose own homes were spared while the homes on either side of them are ruble; firemen; insurance adjusters, and anyone else in the disaster area. Everyone is our customer. Our hottest product in this blistering heat?  Bottles of ice cold water. Two sturdy guys drive our truck today. One, an attorney, and the other, an archeologist and professor. The funny thing is, you'd never know there was a difference between them by the way they're dressed. One vest, our vest, hides all distinction of class, education, occupation and religion.

American Red Cross volunteers
Richard Garcia (left) and Peter Booth
Photo by Anita Laffey 
The driver stops in the middle of the road in the devastation area. His shotgun rider moves orange street cones aside, waves to policemen who smile at our Red Cross truck but yell at gawkers, and motions our driver to enter the “DO NOT ENTER” zone.  We all feel a tinge of pride—our Red Cross logo gains us instant respect and access without questions.  The ERV rolls slowly down abandoned streets. We hear our drivers call out to a man picking up a broken piece of china in what was formerly his kitchen,  “Hey, how about some cold water?  Know anyone who can use some STUFF from the Red Cross?  We got lots of STUFF!” Their lighthearted invitation brings a weary man to our serving window.

Spring up instantly, shove up the window, yank open the cooler, hand out dripping bottles of water as fast as our hands can retrieve them from the ice bins and then grab every piece of equipment or other useful item we can find. Push them out the window quickly to our drivers who are now rapidly handing out clean-up supplies as several groups of people appear. Usually we serve hot meals out of cambros on our trucks, but today is different. We're handing out bulk supplies to help residents clean up the mess left by the wildfire: shovels, rakes, buckets and mops, gloves, masks, sieves to glean for valuables as well as food, water, soap, personal items. We have so much to hand out today. Oh, and toys—big stuffed bears, Mickey Mouse dolls, beanie babies! 

For me, these toys are strategic. Tools of my trade. They open conversations with parents about their how their children are reacting to the loss of their homes in the wildfire. I'm working on the truck like any other crew member, but I'm actually a member of Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services, here to listen to what families are experiencing and to help them cope with the trauma and stress caused by the disaster. 

I won’t do counseling—it’s too soon for that, not appropriate at this time. Instead, I do crisis intervention, remind people of what is normal in an abnormal situation,  offer community resources, and  keep individuals functioning as much as possible so they can take care of their survival needs immediately and prevent further loss.

Photo by Richard Garcia, American Red Cross volunteer
To a nearby father, we say, “How is your little boy doing?   Do you think he would like a Mickey Mouse toy or a beanie baby?  Sure, take whichever one you think he’ll want.  How has he been eating and  sleeping—not sleeping well because he says he’s afraid of the fire breaking out again?  It’s important to give children back a sense of control, power.  You might try asking him what would help him feel safe or asking if he wants to sleep in one of your shirts so he feels closer to you at night.  Here is a small booklet about other ways to help children in times like this.”  The father smiles.  He thanks us and takes the literature we hand to him.  He accepts 4 bottles of water, an ice chest, a shovel and rake, then disappears in the soot and ash. 

We smile and wave at everyone we pass, but sometimes part of me aches.  What can I say to the little girl who won’t talk to anyone now because her dog Brownie died in the fire?  What a terrible, helpless feeling. I wish we could magically bring Brownie back to life, or at least cuddle the silent little girl in a rocking chair and comfort her, sing lullabies to her, and make her pain go away. All I can do is give her a cute pink flamingo Beanie Baby, then quietly talk with her mother.  “My daughter is eating okay, and sleeps pretty well, but she won’t talk since Brownie died,” the mother tells us. We hand her a comfort kit,  talk about how normal it is to behave in weird ways during abnormal times like this, and also encourage her to monitor how her child is doing over the next week or two. If her child isn’t beginning to talk again, the local Red Cross chapter can give her more guidance. For today, perhaps the mother could focus on something positive that her daughter could do. Would the child like to plan a celebration of Brownie’s life and throw a party for him, and invite several of her friends?  What would she like to do to have happy memories of Brownie? The mother is delighted. She laughs and says,  “Oh, my daughter is going to love that idea! She’s my party girl, and I know she’s going to get all her friends to help her make a party for Brownie! Thanks!” 

We remind her to take care of her own needs as well as her family’s, to ask for help from friends and family, to eat and drink water even when she doesn’t feel like it, and to be a role model for her daughter. She nods in agreement. Along with a mop and bucket and cleaning solution, we give her a card with the phone numbers of the local Red Cross chapter and other community resources. 
At our next stop, we ask the slender, athletic-looking young woman if she needs a shovel and rake.  We can barely hear her when she talks. Does she have laryngitis? No, she whispers that she went back into her house too soon after the fire swept through the building, and her lungs are damaged by the smoke. Encouraged her to see her doctor! She’s scheduled to do just that, to see her doctor, this afternoon—we sigh with relief! She takes a large bottle of water, heavy-duty gloves, an ice cooler, and two boxes of clothes washing detergent. “Our clothes are so grungy!” she whispers. “We can’t wash them because we have no electricity and no washing machines.  Do you know of any organizations  that help people clean their clothes?” Oh dear. We hadn’t thought of that. So many things to learn, so many resources to identify!  We’ll check with our drivers and our ERV leaders to find out what is available, then go back to talk with the young woman again. We move on now.
Next stop is waiting. 
The fireman standing by the blackened skeleton of a motorcycle gladly takes a snack bag and a drink from us.  Some of the young people from Samaritan’s Purse who are literally sifting through the ashes of ruble for homeowners to locate what few valuables they can retrieve ask us for wash clothes to wipe sweat off their faces and soft drinks that still fizz.  We pass out bundles of wash clothes, six-packs of soft drinks.  A cluster of people descends on us at the base of the hill, asking for mops and buckets and cases of water.  We give them everything they ask for and more. And more. And more. Until our truck is empty. Totally, completely, shockingly empty.
Our volunteer work day is over. Today we served 200 people, gave out more than 600 bottles of chilled water, scads of ice chests, endless bins of snack bags and comfort kits, tons of shovels and rakes and other items, hundreds of flyers and booklets on ways to help children and adults cope with disasters, and we placed a zillion Mickey Mouses and Beanie Babies for adoption with needy children. I am pooped. The guys in the front cab of the truck have boundless energy, but I'm not accustomed to so much physical labor!
Only have one regret: that we don’t have more “STUFF!  Lots of Red Cross STUFF!” to hand out right here, right now!  Tomorrow morning, though, back to help the guys load up the truck with lots more Red Cross STUFF, move out, and rock and roll in the fire zone again. 
Special note: details important to identification of disaster victims have been altered to protect their privacy.
Anita's story touches the core of what the Red Cross mission strives to do through personal interaction during a disaster. Deployments are made every day across the country. Volunteers receive a call and are often on the road within hours, leaving family and friends for weeks to stand next to a stranger that is hurting. Here is a special thank you to all who deployed recently with the North Texas Region. You make us proud!
Colorado-Waldo Canyon Wildfires: Lavonne Adams, Rey Bailey, Robert Braden, James Brown, Lori Conine, Marguerite Dillion, Mary Farnum, Raenell Gore, Anthony Gojmerac, Dan Halyburton, Sarah Knosp, George Parr, Ken Riel, Jody Sosebee, Christy Stennis-Ball, Cheryl Thomas, Howard Tubre, Charles Wilson. 

Florida-Hurricane Debby: Melanie Collins, Albert Fiorentino, Jackie Fiorentino, Joseph Martin, Joel Moore, Dale Stroope, Mary Stroope, Angie Johnson, Helen Crain, Rita Kretzmeier

Montana-Wildfires: Greg Wood

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