A Fire, a Cat & Renewed Hope

by Jeff Hall, American Red Cross of Massachusetts

There are common threads Red Cross disaster volunteers see every day at home fires. The smell of a home fire is generally described as that of a campfire, and it’s the first sensation every new disaster volunteer experiences. Then there’s the sound of controlled chaos as firefighters, police, residents and bystanders crowd into what was a quiet street just hours before. Fire trucks, police cars, yellow tape strung from fences to porch railings, flashing lights, TV cameras; home fires are quite literally an assault on the senses.

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Paws of hope – A Massachusetts State Police officer holds a cat who miraculously lived through a home fire in Lawrence.

However the most common scene that sticks with me at a home fire is the look of complete shock on the faces of those most affected by a home fire – people who in an instant have lost their home and often their sense of safety and security.

In late November, a fire ravaged a multi-family home in Lawrence at around noon. Several families spilled out onto the cold and rain-soaked streets to escape the flames, taking shelter in a local Disabled American Veterans (DAV) meeting hall. The fire consumed the three-story building along with pretty much everything in it. Residents lost everything, fleeing the flames with literally the clothes on their backs, and in several instances, without shoes or coats. One person ended up in the emergency room after suffering a seizure, but largely everyone escaped unharmed, at least physically. Red Cross volunteers were there to assist those affected by the fire and help them with the first steps in recovery.

If you can find a bright moment among all the loss, and believe me, most look for that moment; it was a lost pet that was thought to be taken by the devastation.

As Lawrence firefighters and the Massachusetts State Fire Marshalls began to gain access to the structure after the smoke had cleared, a resident asked a fireman if they had come across a cat anywhere near the fire. The fireman passed along a few comforting words, saying most pets naturally find their way out or find a safe spot to hide out in.

Being a relative rookie to home fire response, I thought these were merely comforting words meant to distract from an already horrible situation. I for one could not imagine what it would be like to “ride the fire out” (as the fireman had put it) as a cat inside a burning building. Needless to say, I had little hope for the owner and assumed it was another terrible aspect of how fires devastate a person’s life.

Hours went by as Red Cross disaster team members spoke with residents, helped them find hotel rooms and gave out debit cards loaded with the financial assistance the Red Cross provides. Dinner was brought in for everyone, final conversations were had and those affected slowly started those first steps in moving forward from what was likely the worst day of their lives.

One person stayed longest, and before she left she made sure we had her cell phone number in case the fire inspectors found her missing cat. As she walked out the door, I knew I would do the same. I would be filled with the same worry over a pet, even after a great loss.

I learned two final things that night in Lawrence; that we seem to have everything in the back of a disaster vehicle and that it’s okay to hold out hope in tragedy. Eight hours after the fire started, a Massachusetts State Policeman walked into the DAV building. In his arms was a medium sized grey and white cat, a little soggy from the day, but who did indeed ride that fire out. Mathew Georges-Coker, a seasoned Red Cross volunteer, miraculously brought in a collapsible, cardboard pet carrier from the back of the disaster truck and neatly tucked the cat inside, where he waited until his owner picked him up.

I work in the Communications Department with the Red Cross, helping tell the story of our volunteers and the good they do in local Massachusetts’ communities. The fire scenes I’ve been to never leave me. When I go back to take photographs of the remaining burned out structures, it’s sobering to imagine the lives and the living that went on inside. I can see through doors that no longer close, into kitchens and living rooms filled with singed and soaked furniture that made a house a home. Small possessions – teddy bears, photo albums and kitchen utensils – are still there, but they are either burned, muddied or trampled by the firefighters working to save the building. These possessions can never be replaced, and that’s the real tragedy I see on the faces of people in shelters or the back of an Emergency Response Vehicle, people in their first hours of starting over, taking those first steps.

I’m glad the Red Cross is there to provide the first steps for the faces I see. I’m glad there are dedicated volunteers like Lisa, Bob, Mathew and Justin; who dedicate themselves and donate their time to help others. Most of all I’m glad I have the chance to work for an organization that is dedicated to humanitarian service to those faces in need.

The First Step Is Acceptance

* Smita Netra is a Communications volunteer with the American Red Cross of Massachusetts.

I came to this country from India about a year ago. I was newly wed, a little nervous, a little confused and not just a little tired. Idleness is a human’s worst enemy and after two months of actively looking for something to keep me busy, anything to keep my sanity intact, I stumbled across a volunteer position at the American Red Cross. And as they say, the rest is history.

On my first day on the job, I was as nervous as little girl on her first day of school. The butterflies in my stomach were not there because I was starting a new job but because I was scared of whsmitaether people would accept me. My irrational fear was because I looked different, I spoke with an accent and I just felt strange in this new country. But the moment I walked into the communications department, three faces looked at me. To my relief, they were all smiling.

I know it sounds silly to give so much importance to a smile. Trust me when I say this, we take smiles for granted. A smile is the first step in acceptance. The genuine smiles that I saw on my colleagues’ faces made me feel a little more welcome and a lot less anxious.

The weeks went by and I received amazing assignments and projects to work on. My colleagues were extremely supportive and understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, although I must say it took them a while to pronounce my name correctly!

Over time I started to get to know more people in the building and to be honest, it felt wonderful. Yes, there were awkward moments of silence – meeting a person from a different culture can put you in a spot where you are thinking of not saying anything that might offend the other person. It’s like an auto correct function in your brain, only much faster and less reliable.

I love how people give high fives or ask about your weekends and I love our intellectual discussions on politics and religion. I always call one of my colleagues my American History teacher and the other my little ray of sunshine.

A very profound and memorable moment for me here was when I was chosen as the Volunteer of the Year. It was completely unexpected and I was stunned. I honestly thought I received the email notice as a prank. I read it at least a hundred times before I believed it to be true. The fact that Red Cross had chosen me among others over such a short time reinforced my faith in them. I knew I had come to the right place only because I was surrounded by the right people who had accepted me for who I was. These were the people who made me feel at home away from home.

The reason I believe in the Red Cross and its humanitarian services around the world is because, in my opinion, the Red Cross and its people understand the true meaning of humanity. Acceptance is the first step. The Red Cross has shown me that compassion starts at home, wherever home may be.

The Giving is Easy

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Black Friday is ended. Cyber Monday came and went, although online shopping isn’t going anywhere. And #Giving Tuesday hashtags are overwhelming our Facebook news feeds, email inboxes and snail mail.

It’s that time of year again, when organizations tap in to our even better natures and ask us to dig a little deeper into our personal gift funds. And while even the best of us can roll our eyes at the hundredth email we receive asking for a holiday donation, the truth is that organizations like the Red Cross ask because this time of year is when the giving happens. It’s fundraising High Season, folks. People really are more generous this time of year.

The holiday season can also bring anxiety to the generous at heart struggling to make ends meet, and certainly for those of our clients who have recently lost everything in a historic flood, a house fire or tornado.

We’d therefore like to offer some options for giving back that either don’t break the bank or don’t even need the bank.

No Cost Ways to Give

  1. Give Blood. The need never ends, no matter what time of year it is. And blood and platelets have a shelf life, meaning the need is constant. By giving blood and just an hour of your time, you can save up to three lives.
  2. Volunteer. The life’s blood of the American Red Cross is its volunteers. We do set the bar pretty high for our volunteer staff, but the rewards are immeasurable. Think about joining one of our fire response teams, helping local veterans, handing out groceries at our Boston or New Bedford food pantry or being an ambassador for one of our many initiatives. You could even wind up writing our blog! (To get started, click here).
  3. Shop Normally. You’re buying gifts anyway, so why not get them on Amazon? Sign on to AmazonSmile and designate the American Red Cross as your preferred charity, and then begin your virtual shopping trips at amazon.com. You’ll find the same selection and prices as on http://www.amazon.com, but when you check out, AmazonSmile will donate 0.5% of the purchase price of each eligible item to the Red Cross. Yay.

The Gifts that Keeps on Giving

For the person who has everything, why not buy a symbolic gift in his or her name? Starting on Giving Tuesday (November 29), eBay customers can buy Gifts That Give Back to help those in need – from warm blankets for families displaced by floods to a night’s stay in a shelter for wildfire evacuees – these gifts provide hope and comfort when all is lost. Customers will receive a digital certificate with their purchase to email or print as a gift for someone special, and eBay is waiving all fees to ensure that 100% of the purchase price will support the American Red Cross. Available through December 24th, these gifts are perfect for all of your last minute holiday shopping needs!

And While We Have You…

From #GivingTuesday through the month of December, when you donate to the Red Cross through the PayPal Giving Fund, PayPal will add 1 percent to every donation made. And, PayPal passes on 100 percent of every donation made to the Red Cross.

And finally, whether you’re in the market for a car for yourself or looking to make someone else’s holiday merry and bright with super extravagant gift, Mazda and its Dealers invite you to Drive for Good this season. When you lease or purchase a new Mazda vehicle during the Mazda Drive for Good Event November 21 – January 3, Mazda will offer you the chance to direct a $150 donation to the Red Cross among other charities. And, when you test-drive a Mazda vehicle November 21 through January 3, Mazda employees will pledge an hour of volunteer time to worthy causes, including the Red Cross.

No matter what your paycheck or your ability to spare free time, this year, as in every year, we invite you to #GiveWithMeaning. It’s easier than ever.

Grateful to Serve

Welcome to our new American Red Cross of Massachusetts Regional blog…

Welcome to our new American Red Cross of Massachusetts Regional blog, where we hope to open a window into how much good we do here at the Red Cross and how, each and every day (and night), we help people on what will most likely become the worst day of their lives.

So I went to WordPress today and set up a blog. I mined my daily experiences for little anecdotes, but the overarching theme that kept popping up for me was how grateful I am to be surrounded by such a wonderful, committed and hilarious group of teammates across the Commonwealth. These are the people – both paid and volunteer, who load supplies on our vehicles, draft and redraft planning spreadsheets, and give hugs and hope to families who have lost everything in a house fire at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Then it occurred to me: the Red Cross Family is about giving of themselves.  Sometimes a shoulder to cry on is enough, and we’ve had our fair share of those who make use of ours. Other times, we give food, mental health support, a warm place to sleep. It’s the hope that things will get better that inevitably seems to do an outsized amount of good.

Here’s an interesting statistic: our region deployed a total of 27 volunteers to the Southern States date to assist with the Hurricane Matthew response.  Thirteen of them are still there, sleeping on uncomfortable cots in group shelters eating their meals ladled out of sanitized rubber tubs known in the “trade” as Cambros. That’s thirteen sleep deprived people working 12 hour shifts six days a week with limited access to greens, drowning in coffee and far away from the comforts of home. It takes about a week to detox from these deployments.

Kathleen Connors, a woman from Ontario who went to North Carolina on vacation and returned as a Red Cross volunteer, said about her experience: “it’s great to see the looks on their faces when we say we have toilet paper…”

Sounds glamorous, right?

Actually, what it is is life-changing. Yes, for the people whose lives have been shattered, but also for all of the thousands of people who regularly give whatever they can to help improve the situation of others.  For some, it’s the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee. For others, it’s manning the telephones so that members of our community in need know someone cares. We have volunteers who coordinate teams to rush to fire scenes so that families burned out of their homes have a place to sleep that night. We have volunteers helping military families get through terminal illness, death, or the more general stressors of daily life. For the majority of us, it’s what’s in our hearts that compels us to step up, get up or just show up for the simple end of making a positive difference in others’ lives. Helping feels good. If you don’t believe us, believe the people in this video montage who needed our help the most:

So on this day of thanksgiving, and as you read these forthcoming features about our people and our work, we invite you to consider what you might do to make the world a better place. If you’re looking for ideas, we can certainly help. Get a preview of how you can join our family by going to http://www.redcross.org/volunteer.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.