Personal Loss Leads to Service for Others

“My heart aches to see my community suffering after such a devastating tragedy.”

When the call went out for American Red Cross volunteers to help, Cullen Dorais quickly stepped up, just like he has done in the past 11 years. But this time the call was very different, since the call for help was for his very own community, where he lives and also works in.

Cullen Dorais helps set up cots in the Red Cross shelter at Santa Barbara City College. Photo: Cindy Huge, American Red Cross

Dorais, a warehouse manager, has been unable to report to work due to the inaccessibility of the roads since the mudslides hit his community a little over a week ago.  He has been in touch with is boss but he is not certain if the business survived the horrific landslide.  While waiting to see if he can return to work, Dorais decided he needed to do something.

“I need to help, this is my own community. I can’t just do nothing,” he said. So, Dorais volunteered to help the Red Cross as part of the shelter team: setting up cots, blankets and comfort kits to welcome those who have been displaced by this tragedy.  In doing so, he has been assisting with caring for the dozens of residents who now are calling the Red Cross shelter home.

“It strengthens my resolve to serve my community the best I can and to help those who are going through similar losses,” stated Dorias.

For Dorais, the losses have been very personal. Longtime family friends and neighbors did not survive the mudslide and many others he knows are still missing. Emotionally this has been hard for himself and his family.

Cullen helps move shelter supplies at Santa Barbara City College. Photo: Cindy Huge, American Red Cross

Helping serve warm meals or just sitting quietly next to a shelter resident is where you will likely find Dorais today. He often walks out of the shelter to comfort a resident who is sitting alone and may be in need of a listening, supportive, understanding ear.

Volunteers such as Dorais are essential in helping to care for those who have been affected by a disaster. Red Cross volunteers from across the nations have left family and friends to help provide emotional and spiritual care for this community during this disaster operation.

As the days move on, the support of the Red Cross will be essential in helping the community of Montecito move forward in their recovery and healing. For Dorais, just the act of helping and serving others has put him on his own path of recovery and healing.

Photo: Ryan Cullom, American Red Cross

How You Can Help
The quickest and best way to support Red Cross Disaster Relief is through a financial donation. Thanks to the generosity of donors like Tina and Rick Caruso, the Red Cross is able to provide critical relief services such as sheltering, health services, emotional support, distribution of clean up supplies, and much more during a disaster. The Caruso’s are encouraging the community to support the local Red Cross through a donation online at

Photo and Story by Cindy Huge and Michelle Maki, American Red Cross Volunteers


Additional Thomas Fire Services Available

California Wildfires 2017

Since evacuation orders first began to lift for the Thomas Fire, the Red Cross has been there, helping families on the road to recovery. The local Red Cross is now expanding its recovery service centers for those affected by the fire:

Ventura County Credit Union, 6026 Telephone Rd., Ventura, CA 93003
Saturday and Sunday, December 30 and 31, 2017 – 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Tuesday, January 2, 2018 through Friday, January 5, 2018 – 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Saturday, January 6, 2018 through Sunday, January 7, 2018 – 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
NEW: Monday, January 8, 2018 through Friday, January 12, 2018 – 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Red Cross chapter office, 2707 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Sunday, December 31, 2017 – 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Ojai Public Library, 111 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, CA 93023
Saturday, January 6 through Sunday, January 7, 2018 – 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

The Tzu Chi Foundation will be on site in Ventura on December 30 to provide additional financial assistance.

A public hotline has been set up for anyone who may have additional questions about what services are available. Please call the hotline at (512) 745-2920 or contact the local Red Cross chapter at (805) 987-1514 to learn more.

Recovering from a disaster can be a confusing, emotionally draining and complicated process. Red Cross caseworkers are trained to help people create recovery plans and connect people with the services and resources they need.

Red Cross caseworkers will connect one-on-one with people to create individualized recovery plans, navigate paperwork, and locate help from other agencies. In some situations, the Red Cross may provide direct financial support. The assistance can be used for such needs as an apartment deposit, to buy clothes or food, or to cover immediate transportation expenses. Red Cross clean up kits (sifters, cleaning supplies, shovels, etc.) will also be provided at each service center location.

The Red Cross delivers help to whoever needs it regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or citizenship status. The Red Cross is a charity, not a government agency, and people who have disaster-caused needs do not need to be American citizens to access Red Cross services.

See our previous list of Red Cross Service Centers, here.

Note: This post was updated on 1/7/18 to reflect additional service center dates.

Residents Receive Special Visits at Red Cross Shelters

Over the span of the Thomas Fire, residents at Red Cross shelters receive unexpected visits from some special animals. Service animals are always welcome in Red Cross shelters.

On December 17, 2017, Miss Basil made a guest appearance at the Ventura County Fairgrounds Red Cross shelter. There are many special things about this bunny: she is Flemish Giant Rabbit and weighs approximately 18 pounds. But she is also a Therapy Animal. Her caretakers, Amy Hirahara and her son Andrew, know that Miss Basil’s large size does not prevent her from providing comfort and support to anyone who may need it.

Miss Basil the therapy rabbit brought much appreciated comfort to residents in the Red Cross shelter.

Andrew stated that Basil was rescued from a breeder, and her greatest accomplishment is becoming a therapy animal that can now help others. Amy shared with Red Crossers that a resident laid down face to face with Basil and said, “I have not slept well in days, I could fall asleep right here with her. Thank you for bringing her today.”

Therapy dogs brought comfort and joy to both shelter residents and workers.

On the other side of the fire and relief response, San Lucia Open Dog Obedience Group (SLODOG) and Alliance of Therapy Dogs joined forces to deliver comfort for those directly impacted by the Thomas Fire. They traveled to various groups supporting the Thomas Fire, including the Cachuma Lake base camp to visit with firefighters, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s dispatch center, and ending their tour at the Santa Barbara Red Cross shelter.

At the Red Cross shelter, several Therapy Dogs visited with residents of all ages, and volunteers received some cuddles too. The dogs were tired after a long day of visiting with first responders, evacuees, and volunteers, but they still were able to provide much needed comfort and support at our shelter. Together their visits brought immense joy and compassion to residents and volunteers.

Therapy animals come in all shapes and sizes.

During confusing times like these, a visit from a dog or bunny can make all the difference. It is due to the generosity and kindness of the community that residents in the shelter had entertainment, support, and relief during this heartbreaking and time. Special thanks to everyone for spending time with those affected by the Thomas Fire at Red Cross shelters.


Story and photos by Taylor Poisall, American Red Cross

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.”


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.

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.

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.

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.”

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

Thomas Fire Recovery Services

Note: Click here to see an updated list of Red Cross service center dates and times (12/29/17).

The American Red Cross is continuing to support residents affected by the Thomas Fire, even as the holidays approach. Several Assistance Centers are currently open to help local families as they recover from the largest fire in California history.

Red Cross caseworkers will be on site all assistance centers, to help families with their recovery plans. Photo: Taylor Poisall, American Red Cross

The following additional Assistance Centers will be open next week to serve the community:

December 26, 2017 through December 30, 2017, 9:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Ventura County Credit Union, 6026 Telephone Road, Ventura, CA 93003
Tzu-Chi will be providing services on December 30, 2017

December 26, 2017, 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Santa Barbara Red Cross chapter office, 2707 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105

December 27, 2017, 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Palazzio Event Center, 814 E. Main Street, Santa Paula, CA

December 31, 2017, 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Ventura County Credit Union, 6026 Telephone Road, Ventura, CA 93003

December 31, 2017, 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Santa Barbara Red Cross chapter office, 2707 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Tzu-Chi will be providing services

25376586978_7d25a1a7c3_zRed Cross caseworkers will connect one-on-one with people to create individualized recovery plans, navigate paperwork, and locate help from other agencies. In some situations, the Red cross may provide direct financial support. This assistance can be used for such needs as an apartment deposit, to buy clothes or food, or to cover immediate transportation expenses.

Red Cross clean up kits (sifters, cleaning supplies, shovels, etc.) will also be provided at each assistance center location.

The Red Cross is also working closely with government and nonprofit partners to help develop coordinated community recovery plans and strategies. Disaster recovery is often measured in months and years, and the Red Cross will continue to be here to provide hope, comfort, and support to anyone affected by the Thomas Fire.

A public hotline has been set up for anyone who may have additional questions about what Red Cross services are available. Please call (512) 745-2920 to learn more.

Note: This post was updated on 12/26/17 with the latest available Red Cross services.

Note: This was updated on 12/29/17 with a link to a new article with expanded service center times and locations. Click here to see to the latest information.

Cold, Wet Winter Night

I remember it was right before Christmas when I received a call for a house fire. It was cold, late at night, and it had just finished sprinkling, so it was very wet out. I hesitated to go, however I knew that I had signed on so I decided to get up and answer the call.

Floods in North Dakota and Minnesota 2011
Red Cross volunteers often carry Mickey Mouse dolls, donated by Disney, to give to children impacted by disasters.

I met another Disaster Action Team responder at the office and we picked up the Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV). He immediately told me to turn the heater on in the back and make sure we had plenty of blankets, comfort kits and Mickey’s. On the way I was instructed that there were at least four small children that were affected by this fire so our focus will be on them first and then we will focus on the parents.

We arrived at this house that was in total darkness and it looked as if it had been hit by a tornado. There was debris everywhere, with furniture in the yard and the roof was gone. Even with the ERV’s lights there was a glooming darkness over the scene.

We got out and approached the front door with flashlights, and as we peeked inside the front door there was a sight that I will never forget.

I shined my light on a mother, grandmother, and four kids huddled on a wet mattress sitting in the middle of the living room wrapped in some blankets that were also wet. As we identified ourselves all the children immediately got up and ran towards us. All these kids had on were pajamas with no socks and they too were soaking wet and shivering.

We both quickly picked them up and carried them over to the ERV and wrapped them up in warm blankets and handed each one of them a Mickey Mouse. The mother was outside on the phone trying to figure out what to do next so the scene was a bit chaotic for the children. We decided to give the kids some snacks and close the doors to the ERV with the Grandmother inside with them.

Local Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteers respond to a disaster in an Emergency Response Vehicle.

We turned our attention to the mother who was distraught and had no idea what to do next. As a team we calmed her down and let her know we were there to help. Once she heard her children laughing and playing inside the ERV she understood that we were already trying to make things better. She calmed down enough for us to receive the information that we needed in order to assist her and her children.

Apartment Fire
Red Cross volunteers provide relief and comfort to a woman impacted by an apartment fire.

As soon as we gave the mother her financial assistance, she started to cry, hugging us both not knowing what to say. She continued to hug us over and over with joy and finally muddled words telling us that we were angels that were sent to help her when no one else would. We decided to wait with her until a family friend came to pick them all up, so we knew the children and the grandmother could stay warm and continue to play.

This was one of the many times that volunteering with the Red Cross has allowed me to see that the work we do as volunteers is not only needed but very well appreciated.

Joaquin (Jake) Gonzales
Red Cross Volunteer

Give With Meaning This Holiday Season
Stories just like this one happen across our Central California Region every single day. Red Cross volunteers like Jake respond 24 hours a day, seven days week, to provide relief and comfort to families that have lost everything due to home fires or other disasters.

This holiday season, it’s your turn to be a part of this incredible Red Cross story of hope and compassion. You can #GiveWithMeaning and support the many urgent needs of families facing disasters big and small by making a donation to the Red Cross. Visit to learn more.


Across Country Helpers: Two volunteers on a mission


Two American Red Cross volunteers Jerry Chavez and Ray Quintana headed across the country to help their fellow compatriots dealing with the overwhelming effects of Hurricane Harvey. Driving a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) from Fresno, California to Black Springs, Florida took about a week to arrive.

Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) circulate throughout affected communities after disaster to hand out food, relief supplies, information and comfort to those in need.

Right now, more than 250 of these vehicles are on the ground, helping thousands of people affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Thumbnail (4)
During the Key West Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square in Florida – the first since Hurricane Irma – the American Red Cross provided free hot meals for dinner.
Photo by Marko Kokic for The American Red Cross 

Before heading out on their cross country drive, Ray and Jerry spoke with local media about their past experiences assisting with disaster relief and what they anticipated to encounter with the recent disaster relief efforts in Florida.

What type of duties do you think you would be doing?

“Most likely we will be mobile feeding, bulk distribution, anything that they need out there: water, snacks, hot meals, to cleaning supplies,” said Chavez.

“We’ll be mobile ready to roll once it goes through to try to get people these services as soon as we get there,” said Chavez.

You ever done anything like this before?

“Yes. Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy my partner and I had gone up for Hurricane Sandy. So we’ve done it a couple times,” said Chavez.

“It’s all ways something new though never the same,” said Chavez.

How long do you expect to be there?

“Our deployment is two weeks. We’ll be out there a full two weeks,” said Chavez.

What do you find that most people need the most?

“The most is the kind of listen to what they have to say. Besides water donations are a big issues,” said Chavez. “People are frustrated and don’t know what to do. Sometimes just venting and moving about their day,” said Chavez.

Thumbnail (13)
Big Pine Key, Florida. During Hurricane Irma, Big Pine Key resident Christina swam from her flooded trailer to a boat across the street. She welcomed health services from Red Cross volunteer nurse Marie, RN, Missouri. Photo by Marko Kokic for the American Red Cross. 

How does that make you feel to be helping? That has to be a good feeling.

“It’s a good feeling to be able to come out of the comfort of our home and to go over there and help,” said Chavez.

“Even if it’s just temporary to help somebody for a short period of time,” said Chavez.

How long have you been a Red Cross volunteer?

“Since Katrina,” said Quintana.

What’s it like being up there?

“It’s hectic sometimes but we love doing the job by being busy and being ready for whatever they call for. So we keep pretty busy out there. Long hours,” said Quintana.

So you have a long drive ahead you? You headed for Florida?

“Yes we do. Yes for Florida. I believe its Black Springs, Florida,” said Quintana.

Thumbnail (2)
Bonita Springs, Florida. American Red Cross volunteers, including volunteer nurses provide much needed support, medical attention, hot meals and water to those impacted by Hurricane Irma in Bonita Springs, Florida. Almost two weeks later, flooding is still impacting residents. Photo by Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross 

When you guys went to Sandy it’s about the same distance. How long was the drive? How long did it take?

“I believe its four to five days. We drove together Jerry and I,” said Quintana.

So do you expect this to be the same trip?

“More or less, yes we’re ready for it.

What do you get out of this trip?

“It makes me feel so good to help people. That’s what we are here for is to help people in their need in the time of need,” said Quintana.

“So we’re there to be these for them and help them any way we can,” said Quintana.

This is a prime of example of how much the Red Cross cares about people in need; in addition to the kind of heart the individuals that volunteer for the Red Cross have.