To any outsider, the beige hotel ballroom full of people and round banquet tables probably looked like any other conference. But what was happening inside was remarkable.
On this particular day, dozens of local military families were receiving life changing resources to help them cope with deployment. It was all part of a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program event, an effort to promote the well-being of National Guard and Reserve members, their families, and communities, by connecting them with resources throughout the deployment cycle. This event was held specifically for California Army National Guard troops that had just returned from a yearlong deployment in Kuwait. Many of them are also veterans of previous deployments, including Iraq.
“With multiple deployments and the untold stresses of the war zone, these soldiers have faced many challenges and yet now face the distinct challenge of simply returning home,” said Marcella Franklin, Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces Manager.
The American Red Cross plays a large role at these events, hosting programs called Reconnection Workshops. On this particular day, Red Cross volunteers from around the country came together in the Central California Region to host the Communicating Clearly Reconnection Workshop.
“It’s difficult to be away from family and friends for extended periods of time. These people are gone for nine months to a year, so that’s a real separation,” said lead facilitator Tonya Nakashima.
Often, families find themselves feeling like strangers after months of separation. The means of communication at home are often different than those used during deployment. The Communicating Clearly workshop helps participants improve their communication skills to better manage the post-deployment period.
“Family dynamics often change during the soldier’s absence, with partners assuming new roles and responsibilities, children who have grown and matured, and new routines and schedules established,” said Franklin.
The Red Cross Reconnection Workshops, which are free and confidential, focus on individual and small group discussion that enhances the likelihood of positive reconnections among family members and others in the community, and the successful re-engagement of service members and veterans in civilian life.
Reconnection Workshops are just one part of the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program. Just last month alone, the local Red Cross helped send 80 emergency communication messages for services members to commands around the world, participated in two stand down events to support homeless veterans, and many more activities to support military families.
Supporting military families is one of the oldest traditions of the American Red Cross. The organization was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton after she witnessed firsthand the need to care for soldiers during the Civil War. Today, the Red Cross is one of the only military non-profits that supports service members from the day they enlist through their time as a veteran.
Learn more about Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Programs and find an upcoming event near you by visiting yellowribbon.mil.
Central California Regional Communications Director Jessica Piffero is one of thousands of Red Crossers from around the nation that has deployed to the east coast as part of the Hurricane Matthew disaster relief operation. As a Public Affairs supervisor, she is based in South Carolina and leading team of Public Information Officers and storytellers.
Day 2 of my Hurricane Matthew deployment has wrapped up.
My first day was spent in headquarters at the North Charleston Red Cross office. I got to know the incredible team I’m working with from all over the nation and meet some incredible volunteers. The size of the operation is indescribably huge. Cots were lined up as far as the eye could see.
Today, a volunteer and I traveled to a Red Cross shelter in Beaufort (about two hours south of Charleston) that was housing nearly 300 residents. Volunteers there were doing an amazing job, assisting with everything from filling prescriptions, to playing games with children, to serving hot meals. Everyone genuinely seemed happy and comfortable, despite their circumstances.
Most of the residents in the shelter were from a community called Hilton Head Island. It was one of the last remaining communities under evacuation orders today from the initial impact of the hurricane. When the roads opened at 3:00, my partner and I were there with them as they reentered the island.
From our perspective, many of the houses were luckily saved, even if only by a close call from trees falling just inches away. Downed trees were everywhere, blocking roads, blanketing playgrounds, and resting on roofs. I could only imagine how scary it would have been at night, listening to the snapping of branches all around, the twisting metal creaking, and not knowing if any of it was going to crash through your home.
Tomorrow I’m off to Myrtle Beach, where I’ll be leading a team on the ground there. Just because the hurricane has passed, doesn’t mean the danger is over. Many rivers in the area are beginning to crest, and thousands more will be impacted. But our Red Cross volunteers are poised and ready to make sure residents are safe and comfortable.
I’ve spent the last two days based at the Red Cross district headquarters in Myrtle Beach. As a supervisor, I’m now leading a team of three incredible volunteers – a great grandmother from Arizona and a couple from the Bay Area. Being a supervisor means I’m spending more time at the Red Cross Emergency Operations Center, coordinating with other leaders and informing the team of communications opportunities in the field.
I did get the chance to travel with an Emergency Response Vehicle this evening as they delivered warm meals to impacted neighborhoods. I was able to see firsthand how devastating this hurricane really was. In many cases, residents were lucky to return home with minimal damage. But the power has been out now for several days, which means spoiled food in the fridge. Many low income families that receive food stamps had just purchased their food for the month when Matthew hit. Now, with no money and no food, these residents say that seeing Red Cross volunteers is the highlight of their day.
Things have slowed here after the initial impact of the storm. But rivers are now rapidly rising, causing new damage and more evacuations. The next couple days are likely to be tough for our team and the community, but I know we’ll get the job done. We always do.
Some stories are harder to tell than others. The journalist in me knows I have a responsibility to my team and the community to tell the story of Hurricane Matthew. But the humanitarian side of me is heartbroken hearing the stories of devastation.
The hardest story to tell so far has been that of the Johnson Family. Crystal and Tim Johnson have experienced three devastating disasters in the last three years. Like countless other South Carolina residents that live near the Wacccamaw River, the Johnsons were caught off guard by Hurricane Matthew. Now floodwaters continue to rise and are seeping into their home, making it unlivable. Almost exactly one year ago, the Johnsons were impacted by the historic 1,000 year flood.
As if it was not bad enough to endure two consecutive years of flooding, three years ago, in the middle of the night, their home caught fire and burned to the ground. Tragically, Crystal’s father was inside and was killed.
“When my house burned three years ago, a woman from the Red Cross came in the middle of the night to comfort me,” said Crystal, “She stayed with me all night. And now, for each of these floods, I know that the Red Cross is in my neighborhood and will take care of me and my neighbors.”
Mr. Rogers famously once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Looks for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Every day on a major disaster like this one, we come face to face with destruction and heartache. But our volunteers are the bright light in this darkness. They are the helpers, and I am more proud than ever to be a part of this family.
Volunteer Virginia Becker, surveying a residential street that turned into a river after Hurricane Matthew.
Shelter manager Carlos Ortiz takes a moment to chat with a child staying at the South Florence High School shelter. Photo by Virginia BEcker
This child can sleep safely in this crib that was donated to the Red Cross at the Spartenburg Expo Shelter. Photo by Virginia Becker
Red Cross volunteers work with a wheelchair bound client ensuring that all of her medical needs are met. Photo by Virginia Becker
Mailboxes along the street show the impact of floodwaters after Hurricane Matthew. Photo by Virginia Becker
High winds from Hurricane Matthew brought down huge trees all around Shanta Millan’s home on Edisto Island, but her home survived intact. “Yes, we have storm damage, but we know how lucky we really are in life,” said Shanta as she gave Red Cross disaster responder Michelle Hankes big hug. Photo Credit: Bob Wallace/American Red Cross
Red Cross volunteers Bob & Denise Van Ness drove an emergency response vehicle from Philadelphia to South Carolina. Photo by Virginia Becker
Red Cross volunteers providing meals to residents at the Spartenburg Expo Shelter. Photo by Virginia Becker
Eric Anderson is an Americorps volunteer from Kentucky. He came all the way to South Carolina to help with relief efforts for Hurricane Matthew. Photo by Virginia Becker
The smoke grew thick and dark as flames of the Cedar Fire began coming down the side of black mountain towards Marcela Freerks’ home early Saturday morning. Freerks, 68, was having trouble breathing from the smoke when her son encouraged them to leave their home and seek housing at a Red Cross shelter.
In the initial hours of the fire, Freerks and her son prepared and grabbed irreplaceable items including a computer and flash drive full of pictures as well as a painting and small sculpture that had been given to her father.
This is Freerks’ third evacuation in her 10 years living in Silverado Estates. Part of her property was burned by the Way Fire two years ago, which she first reported to the fire department.
“I don’t know what to expect,” says Freerks, “we are not allowed to go see the fire because the flames are about 100 feet from my house, or closer.”
Freerks and her son have been staying at the American Red Cross shelter at the First Baptist Church in Lake Isabella since Sunday. She has found a supportive community among the residents and volunteers at the shelter.
“This community is really stressed and in pain, but I am in a place with people who live close to me that I never knew. Now we share a bond and we have the same kind of present destiny,” says Freerks.
The shelter, one of three currently being operated for the Cedar Fire, is housing roughly 27 evacuees. It is being staffed 24 hours a day by Red Cross volunteers, with support from Salvation Army, County services, and other community partners. Freerks admires the work of all the volunteers and firefighters.
“I have confidence in firefighters to save what can be saved, confidence in the county workers to offer comfort and care, and in Red Cross volunteers with their knowledge, physical support, and empathy,” says Freerks.
Noticing the struggle of others in the shelter, Freerks met her neighbors with compassion and a warm embrace, expressing the importance of how strong each member of this community is. The shelter is full of conversation, community meetings, sharing of meals, and children playing. In this time of tragedy, Freerks remains positive and gives everyone in the room a reason to smile with her infectious attitude.
“It’s your choice to cry or smile,” mentions Freerks.
The Red Cross has been providing relief and comfort for dozens of residents affected by multiple fires across the Central California Region, including the Cedar, Chimney, Rey, and Bar Fires. There are currently four shelters open supporting families evacuated from the Cedar and Chimney Fires, with additional locations, volunteers, and supplies on standby in the event of additional evacuations.
The American Red Cross is helping thousands of people in Louisiana affected by the devastating flooding there, likely the worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. More than 7,000 people spent Tuesday night in Red Cross and community shelters, and thousands more are without power in hot, humid conditions.
The state has been hit by 6.9 trillion gallons of rain – enough to fill 10.4 million Olympic pools.
Several hundred Red Crossers are on the ground in Louisiana now, and by Friday there will be more than 1,000 workers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 36 volunteers from all over California are responding to provide relief.
The Central California Region is doing its part to support not only Louisiana flood relief efforts, but also wildfire efforts affecting our neighboring regions to the north and south. So far this week we’ve sent a total of eight local volunteers to relief efforts in California and Louisiana. Six volunteers from the Central Valley, Kern, and Ventura chapters are in Louisiana supporting shelter operations, health services, and distribution of recovery supplies. Two volunteers, one each from the Central Valley and Ventura chapters, are supporting the Clayton Fire burning in Lake County.
The Red Cross and its partners in Louisiana have served almost 100,000 meals and snacks since the onset of the flooding. The Red Cross has also mobilized over 60 disaster response vehicles, nearly 40,000 ready-to-eat meals, and dozens of trailers filled with shelter and kitchen supplies to bolster relief efforts.
Initial reports indicate responding to this disaster could cost more than $10 million. People can donate by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word LAFLOODS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recovery from these disasters.
In the aftermath of the Erskine Fire, Edythe Catalano was one of the hundreds of people assisted by the Red Cross after having to evacuate her home.
When the fire initially broke out it quickly spread and consumed dozens of homes in its path. Catalano’s South Lake home was one of hundreds endangered by the blaze, it was her neighbor Tim who stepped in to help.
“He said, ‘the fire is coming this way and you’ve got to get out’ and I said well I’ve got to grab some things and he said, ‘grab your cane and your purse and that’s all you’re taking,’” Catalano said.
After escaping the area threatened by the inferno, Catalano ended up at the Kernville Elementary School Red Cross shelter. A year earlier, Catalano had just moved to her South Lake home from San Pedro to be closer to her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, who live in Squirrel Valley.
While her daughter’s home was spared in the fire, it was left without power in the blistering heat, making it unfit for 86-year-old Catalano.
During the evacuation, Catalano was forced to leave behind many of her possessions, including her vital medications. Once at the shelter, Red Cross volunteers and medical staff assisted her in getting the medication that she relies on, free of charge.
“The Red Cross has really been good and I couldn’t believe they took care of the co-payments on my prescriptions because that is what worried me because I had my prescriptions at home, but I didn’t have many of them here. I thought oh my god, if I have to make co-payments on all of those at one time and the doctor said, ‘no I am going to go to the pharmacy and pick up all of the stuff for you and there will be no charge,’” Catalano said.
During the days following the evacuation the Red Cross shelter became her home and the volunteers, her extended family. That bond it what led one volunteer to go above and beyond to ensure Catalano was comfortable.
“So she said, ‘what you need is some slip on slippers’ and I said well I have some at home and she said, ‘well I am going to get you a pair,’” Catalano said.
As a first-time client of the Red Cross, Catalano was impressed with the compassion shown to her by the volunteers and the food.
“I think they do a really good job for all of the people they’re serving,” Catalano said.
While Catalano in unsure of how long it will take for the power to be restored at her daughter’s house so she can move in there, she does know that she will have a place with the Red Cross as long as she needs it. Somewhere she will receive a nice place to sleep, good food, the medications she relies on, and information on services to help her recover from the devastating Erskine Fire.
“Wonderful. They’ve just gone out of their way to make us as comfortable as possible under the circumstances,” Catalano said.
Cindy Huge and Zach Kramer
Red Cross Volunteers
Read more stories from the Red Cross Erskine Fire response.
The Erskine Fire began of the afternoon of Thursday, June 23, 2016, evacuating thousands of Kern River Valley residents and destroying more than 280 homes. While the Red Cross was providing relief and comfort to the impacted families on Friday, July 1, the Deer Fire broke out in Bear Valley Springs, near the mountain town of Tehachapi. The Red Cross quickly deployed a shelter team to provide shelter to the evacuated residents. These are the stories from the field of those who lost everything and those who responded to help.
What is the most important thing to save in a fire? According to fire evacuees Grace and Patrick Jackson the most important thing is to be sure they are both safe. Recent victims of a home fire, the couple were faced with a second challenge when they were shopping at a local grocery store and received a telephone alert to standby for an evacuation due to a wildfire.
They were being alerted to the eruption of the Deer Fire near Bear Valley Springs which began Friday afternoon and has since burned 1,785 acres in the Tehachapi area.
They quickly drove home to retrieve their dog and belongings and were met by fire and law enforcement personnel organizing firefighting efforts in front of their house. With fire quickly advancing towards the back of their home, fire personnel asked them to evacuate immediately.
“We were scared to death,” said Patrick.
Gathering their dog and a few belongings, the couple sped away to spend the next two days with friends, worrying they might not see their home again.
They had just moved back into their home seven weeks ago – after it had been damaged by a home fire that began in their fireplace.
After checking into the American Red Cross shelter on Sunday, they went to church and would be returning later in the day to the shelter for a meal. They noted they had not eaten much in the last 12 hours.
Married for two years, Grace and Patrick emphasized that the most important thing to them was that they were both safe. Patrick stressed that going through two fires and a work related injury was rough, but that everything was going to work out ok.
Sandy Dralle & Cindy Huge
Red Cross Volunteers
While most people recognize Hawaii as the Aloha State by the friendly attitude of its residents towards visitors, Hawaii State Representative Ryan Yamane took the Aloha Spirit on the road and volunteered to serve as a Disaster Mental Health worker at the Erskine Fire event in Lake Isabella, California. At last count over 280 homes were destroyed, leaving hundreds homeless in this small foothill community.
Prior to serving as chair of the Committee on Land and Water, Ryan worked as a Clinical Director at Hookupono, an outpatient social services program serving at risk youth in Honolulu. With a degree psychology and masters degrees in social work and business administration, Ryan was well equipped to serve as part of the Red Cross Mental Health team that provides emotional support and resources to victims, and staff. Ryan’s engaging smile, quick wit and warm personality make it evident that he is just the right person to help those in need, as well has his constituents back home in Hawaii.
A Red Cross volunteer since 2006, Ryan was originally scheduled to support efforts for flooding in West Virginia, but was redeployed to California at the last minute. He has previously responded to hurricane events in Hawaii and flooding in Texas. His current assignment could last from ten to fourteen days.
“With physical injury damage to the person is easily seen and treated,” Yamane notes, “but with mental and emotional issues, they are harder to recognize and address. Our role is not to “fix” our clients, but rather to guide them to the resources that will assist in their healing and recovery.” According to Ryan, the Disaster Mental Health worker position requires a person who can listen, empathize and connect with clients without being overcome by the often disastrous circumstances of the event. “As difficult as the job can be, I have seen communities come together and bond, demonstrating tremendous hope and spirit to overcome. It’s really about neighbors helping neighbors, we are here for a limited period of time – it’s their family, friends and neighbors that shoulder the long term responsibility for recovery,” he notes.
When asked about incidents that stand out in his memory as a volunteer, Ryan quickly recounted dealing with a resident during the Texas floods. “It’s pouring rain and there is a guy standing in the fast moving water, at risk of being swept away,” he recalls. “So I ask him, “Hi, so what are you doing in the water? To which he answered that he is looking for crawfish. I did my very best to convince him that was probably not a good choice at that time.”
Red Cross Volunteer
The Red Cross continues to support local families affected by disasters like the Erskine and Deer fires. Learn more about the response efforts here.
An ideal Father’s Day for John Parsons would usually be sleeping in and reading the newspaper. But on this Father’s Day, John and many more volunteers like him, are instead giving their time to volunteer on the American Red Cross Sherpa Fire response in Santa Barbara County.
The father to three children and three grandchildren, John has spent his whole life caring for his family and others. As a Marine serving during Vietnam, he contacted the families of servicemembers who were wounded or killed in the war and helped with funeral arrangements.
The idea of becoming a Red Cross volunteer came to John when his family was evacuated during a wildfire. The Red Cross was there to provide shelter and comfort for them. Soon after retiring, John became a Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) member to help families affected by home fires, as well as use his skills and experience to support disaster logistics.
“It’s nice when you can help face to face, like on the DAT team. But I do Logistics, and I’m good at that, and organized. It always feels good to be able to use a skill,” said John.
Logistics is what you’ll find John doing today, instead of relaxing on Father’s Day. Logistics volunteers like John play a key role behind the scenes of a Red Cross disaster response. From managing facilities to running warehouses, this team is critical to supporting the Red Cross mission.
Father and Grandfather Keith McLellan initially joined the Red Cross family as board member.
“When I was on the board of Red Cross I was very impressed with the people serving on the board, and the volunteers, and the staff serving at the Red Cross,” said Keith, “I decided that when I retired I would volunteer with the Red Cross now that I have time.”
“I have the gift of time and compassion and so both of those lend themselves to giving away. It’s a philosophy that we should always give away what we can.”
Today Keith is spending Father’s Day working in the Red Cross Sherpa Fire shelter, helping families impacted by evacuations.
“One of the principles that I think is helpful is any act of kindness small or large is always valuable. Just being available to listen and support and walk alongside somebody who has needs should be second nature. And that’s what defines community,” said Keith.
Thankfully this father to three boys and grandfather to two granddaughters was able to celebrate Father’s Day with his family early by going to dinner last night. To him, an ideal Father’s Day is simply “Where I’m in a good relationship with my children and my family. Everything is extra. Everything else is a bonus. And a chance to be with them, know that they’re well, is the best Father’s Day gift a father can have.”