Kindness Comes Full Circle, and a Red Cross Angel Earns Her Wings

“If there was ever a Red Cross Angel, it would have to be Bettye.”

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This term, “Red Cross Angel”, is given by fellow Red Crossers to a comrade who consistently displays compassion, empathy and resourcefulness for the benefit of others- behaviors the American Red Cross holds dear and looks for in every potential volunteer. It’s not an official award or title, but rather one of endearment and honor bestowed by those who see the works of that “Angel”.  It now seems a new “Angel” has joined the ranks.

I was visiting the Red Cross Client Service Center recently in Ojai.   The volunteers there were assisting the impacted  residents of Ojai, CA following the devastating Thomas Fire.  The acrid smell of smoke still lingered in the air on this otherwise pleasant, sunny day. It was hard to imagine that just a week earlier the sky was darkened by the smoke of burning homes and brush and residents were fleeing for their lives.  As I approached the service center, I was met by several volunteers who mentioned that perhaps I would like to meet with one of our own Red Crossers who had a remarkable story that needed to be told.

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Pink ribbons mark properties that had been lost to the Thomas Fire.

Bettye Berg is known for her humility and deflecting attention away from herself, so these volunteers smoothed the road for me by calling her ahead of time and asking if she would, perhaps share her story.   They then drove me up into the blackened hills to meet her and along the way; my heart was breaking as I saw mile after mile of charred hillsides and ash.  There were ribbons hanging in front of some properties to indicate that this had been a home that had burned to the ground.  Nothing was left, and I got out of the car to inspect for myself:  truly nothing remained.  The fire had burned so hot, there was nothing but ash in many places.  Then, oddly enough, in other lots down the road, green deciduous trees stood untouched.  When we arrived at Bettye Berg’s property she greeted us with a smile and a ready hug.  She showed us around, pointing out where the homes of her neighbors once stood and she shared with us her experience and survival of the Thomas Fire.

Bettye and her husband had been in Oxnard enjoying a dinner out when her son called her, very concerned, because there was a brushfire in nearby Santa Paula.  The Santa Ana winds were gusting by then, and he was concerned for their safety.  Bettye and her husband took his advice and decided to head back home immediately.  The Red Flag warnings for extreme fire danger had been posted for days, and this year had been a treacherous one for wildfires; they were not going to take any chances.  They found the roads back to Ojai through Santa Paula blocked, so they drove an alternate route through Ventura, and again, they found the road was closed.  After several hours, they managed to make their way through, so they could get home to evacuate.

They arrived home about 9 o’clock that night and the scene was out of a horror film. Embers and ash were raining down on their home and the entire neighborhood.  They both rushed into the house to grab the important papers and their beloved puppy, “Buddy” and ran for their RV to leave.  In less than the 15 minutes it took to grab and go, Bettye witnessed several of their neighbors’ homes explode into flames.

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Bettye watched as her neighbors’ homes went up in flames around her.

“I saw, what looked like a cyclone of fire, hover over one of the homes from the sky and then just drop down on top of it. It was like an explosion of fire.”  Bettye remembers. “It was terrifying.”

As they drove down the winding road into and then out of the town of Ojai, the wind was blowing so hard that the fences and brush afire on either side of the road were blowing flames across the road.  “We were driving through the flames.” Bettye recalls.  “It was hot, almost unbearable.  But we made it out.  We just knew, after what we had witnessed and what we drove through, our home was gone.  All our neighbors’ homes were on fire, and we just knew ours was too.”

Bettye has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for over 30 years, serving in the Red Cross Health Services and then DOVES (Disaster Operation Volunteer Escapees) and Disaster Services during Katrina, Sandy and countless other disasters. She’s been a co-lead for casework and mass care, and has opened and managed countless shelters.  “I never, ever, thought I would be a client in need of services from the Red Cross.  Never.”  But here they were; Bettye and her husband had arrived safely at the shelter and were checking in at the Red Cross shelter as evacuees.  “I now understand a little more of what they feel-you know, that uncertainty and that fear. I’ll never forget it.  It’s very different to be on the other side of this.”  Bettye recalls.   She and her husband had a safe place that night.  They parked their RV and Bettye wasted no time.  “I had to do something. I knew my home was gone, and I knew I could help.  There were hundreds of people showing up that needed help, so I pitched in.”

Indeed there were!  Ojai has a very diverse population, but in this particular area there is a high percentage of seniors, and that night 837 (mostly seniors) check into the shelter seeking refuge and safety.  “Many seniors, like us, drove their RVs in, and there were about 45 of those.  For 6 days, Bettye helped manage and run the shelter until it transitioned over to a shelter in Ventura.

“There were many, many people there with special needs and it was a very challenging task, addressing these needs and leading the other volunteers, but Bettye made sure they were seen by the nurse and their needs met,” commented Spiritual Care Team member Norita Cassou, “Nothing escaped her.  She made sure everyone who needed attention, got it.”  Even the evacuees in the RVs were on her mind.

“I knew they would need to dump their tanks. They’d been here 6 days, and as an owner of an RV, I thought this needs to be addressed too.”  So, she put a call out to someone she knows in Public Works, and they came up with a solution that really helped these folks out in dumping their holding tanks.  “You might say, I have friends in low places too!” she laughs.

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The area all around Bettye’s home is scorched by the Thomas Fire.

This light hearted senior with bright eyes and an infectious smile then grew more somber.  “When it came time, the California Highway Patrol was going to caravan us in for one hour.  That’s it…one hour…to grab anything we could that might have survived the fire, and then get out.  We started back up that road…….and I could remember everything-how it was trying to get out.  I just knew our home was gone, but there was this little, tiny hope.  That ride back up the mountain was the longest 20 minutes of my life.  Lot after lot….ash…..charred trees, and all my dear neighbors’ homes were gone.  I just knew ours was too.  But then, we came around the corner and it was there….still standing.  I couldn’t believe it!  Even the trees were still there!  There is no reason that our home should still be standing.  None! That old, dried out wooden deck should have burned for sure.”  When Bettye examined the home closer, one could see the burn marks and ash on the asphalt shingles, and yet it still stood. “I don’t know why or how.  I have no explanation. I don’t know why, I don’t.  But I’m so very, very grateful.”

She pulled her beloved, white ball of fluff puppy, Buddy, close to her heart and nuzzled him.  I won’t be bothering with Christmas decorations this year.  This is enough. ”  Cassou pulls me aside and shares, her eyes glistening with tears, “She’s so humble she’d never tell you, but their second RV didn’t burn either, so she’s given it to her neighbor to live in while they re-build. That’s the kind of Angel she is.”

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Bettye and Buddy share a moment together at their home in Ojai.

Bettye’s decades of kindness, empathy and selfless service has now come full circle.  This is one Red Cross Angel who has, indeed, earned her wings.

Story and photos by Michele Maki, American Red Cross

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