It Takes a Community

Posted: January 17th, 2016 under community, health.

I recently joined the American Red Cross as a volunteer. I have been in Illinois for several months and will continue to be for an undetermined amount of time before I return home to Maine. I’ve been looking into several charity and humanitarian organizations in which to volunteer while I am here. I always felt that the Red Cross was a really great organization–particularly when it comes to aiding in disaster relief–and decided I really wanted to be a part of it. I applied online, took a couple online courses, and interviewed with a Pam, the gregarious and vivacious volunteer specialist in the South Central Illinois Chapter located in Decatur.

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I was surprised to find out how many different types of volunteer opportunities there were for the Red Cross; however, I am especially interested in working in disaster services (which I was told needed the most help). Until this past week I haven’t done anything besides go to the weekly meetings. Kirk, our volunteer leader, has been helping me get familiar and acclimated to the processes. At our meeting this past Monday he invited me to go down to Kincaid on Wednesday with him and another volunteer, Bruce, to assist in day-long program helping flood victims of Kincaid gain access to various resources. I was thrilled to go help, and I rescheduled my doctor appointment I had scheduled for that day.

The American Red Cross partnered with local agencies at the American Legion building to host a Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) for flood victims in the Kincaid area. MARC is a “one-stop shop” to help residents access disaster recovery resources. Kirk picked me up, and we met Bruce at the American Red Cross building in Decatur. The three of us drove down to Kincaid (about 45 minutes away) in the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV). Kirk explained to me on the drive that the ERVs are all standardized around an ambulance design, but the switches that read “siren” and “lights” didn’t actually do anything. Bummer.

I was amazed by the number of agencies there, ready to help flood victims from the area. Each agency had a table set up for clients to come to, offering financial assistance, emotional or physical support, or referrals and information on long-term recovery services. Some agencies participating in the MARC included the Department of Public Health, the American Legion, Salvation Army, Area Agency on Aging, Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Christian County Family & Community Resource Center, Community Mission Center, Department of Human Services Rehabilitation, Department of Insurance, Midland Ministries Association, Illinois Attorney General, the Illinois Commerce Commission, and I.E.M.A. (Illinois Emergency Management Agency). The Red Cross provided a plethora of snacks and drinks while the local Methodist church provided hot meals and wrapped up to-go meals for everyone throughout the entire day.

I initially expected to primarily be observing and helping to serve food. However, soon after I arrived I was asked to serve as an ambassador for the entire day, which meant that I accompanied clients (flood victims) throughout the room to the different agencies, directing them to the resources specific to their individual needs. I was happy to have the opportunity to work directly with the clients and to see the whole process first hand.

The clients would first fill out a registration form after they arrived. I would then greet them and bring them to Red Cross caseworkers who were available to help people create personal recovery plans, understand paperwork and locate assistance for their specific disaster-caused needs. No one is turned down, but each applicant goes through a process to get assistance from the organization. The client would fill out an assessment form, and the caseworker would help them review what their needs were. The Red Cross would actually send an assessor out to the property, review what could be done and what help they could give them. I was shocked to see how many people had been affected by the flooding, and how much destruction it caused–directly and indirectly.

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My first client–let’s call her Mary–had an additional problem on top of the rising water in her home. A block in the sewer line caused the toilet in her basement to explode, spewing out raw sewage with such force that it overturned her washing machine. The sewage rose up to four feet in her basement, which was where her granddaughter was living. Once the sewer line was unplugged and the sewage water receded, fecal and other residue remained on the walls and furniture. Mary worked hard scrubbing what she thought she could salvage with bleach. After going through a lot of bleach and inhaling the toxic fumes, she realized it was futile. She needed to be healthy to take care of her husband who was very sick with cancer. When Mary called the insurance company, the agent told her this was all a result of flooding–and she didn’t have flood insurance. She said that she could hear the smile in his voice as he told her she was out of luck. Her story angered and saddened me.

Unfortunately this was common with nearly all the clients I worked with: They thought the homeowners insurance they were paying every month included flooding. But apparently flooding is an entirely different disaster, worthy of an entirely separate insurance policy–one that nobody had or even knew about. It was disheartening to hear the challenges and trauma that these people were facing, and my heart went out to them.

Dennis, a Red Cross caseworker, helped Mary get started. Mary was emotional as she told her story. She seemed understandably stressed and defeated. Because she hadn’t had anyone go to her home yet to assess the damage, Dennis encouraged her to seek the help she needed from the other agencies there while an assessor from the Red Cross went out to her property.

I brought Mary over to talk to a couple of ladies from the Red Cross who were there to specifically address medical and mental health issues. They advised her on ways to deal with her financial stressors, getting medication for her husband, finding support from friends, and coping mentally and emotionally with her situation. She told me she already felt much better after talking to them, and I could see in her demeanor that a weight seemed to have been lifted.

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With each agency we visited and each person we talked to there seemed to be a spark of hope in Mary’s disposition. The pastor of Midland Ministries gave her a gift card to use for groceries and other items. There were laundry baskets full of food (including whole frozen chickens and hams), and she told Mary to take one. Mary was overwhelmed with gratitude, saying that they’d lost nearly all their food. The pastor then told her to go to the church down the street to get free meals, blankets, and clothing. Mary said “That’s wonderful! My husband only has one pair of pants!”

The representative from the Southern Baptist church at another table told Mary they would send people to her house to clean up the mess, and that she shouldn’t be doing it on her own. I could visibly see the relief in Mary’s face and in her stature. A Salvation Army representative wrote her a check to buy whatever she needed (aside from tobacco and alcohol) at a local discount store, and told her to take a couple of their cleaning kits (household cleaning supplies) with her. Dennis from the Red Cross beckoned us back over to his table to say that an assessor had been to her house, and he could now determine what the Red Cross could do to help her. He presented her with a debit card, pre-filled with a considerable amount of money. Overwhelmed with gratitude and relief, she began crying again. She whispered to me “I can buy my husband’s medications now!”

I was so very touched, and so happy that she had so much support and the resources she needed to begin the road to recovery. I helped her carry her food and her cleaning kits out to her car. We gave each other a big hug, and she went on her way.

I had the opportunity to work with many clients throughout the day–each with different stories and concerns, but all of them dealing with very real and significant challenges. They appreciated and took advantage of the same services offered to Mary, as well as services from other agencies, which included low-interest loans, childcare, rehabilitation, water treatment systems, utility assistance programs, insurance assistance and counseling, fraud protection, and even a “comfort dog,” a sweet golden retriever named Esther with her own business card.

It was inspiring and uplifting to see the community come together and provide support and assistance during difficult times. I am very glad to have this opportunity to be a part of it. I am always in awe when I see individuals and groups working together, seamlessly orchestrated, and motivated by a universal, altruistic cause.

This brings to mind a video I came across a couple years ago of a flashmob orchestra. To pay tribute to their city, Sabadell, Banko Sabadell (a Spanish bank) arranged this flashmob performance by the Vallès Symphony Orchestra, the Lieder, Amics de l’Òpera and Coral Belles Arts choirs.

Every time I watch this, I am impressed and emotionally invigorated. Strong individuals coming and working together for a universal purpose can make a huge difference. It takes a community.



1 Comment »

  1. It sounds very interesting and rewarding!

    Comment by Steven Pam — January 18, 2016 @ 7:42 am

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