Red Cross volunteers are trained and their skills are assessed to determine the best use of their abilities. Volunteers are offered a variety of opportunities from which to choose so that the volunteer experience will be positive and enriching. Some choose to be on call for emergency response to events such as house or apartment fires, as well as, accidents where humans are displaced from their homes. This week, many people whose paths would have otherwise never crossed are working together to offer safe haven, hot meals, hugs and hope to those evacuated from the path of Hurricane Isaac.
Day before yesterday, I received a call to serve in a shelter. Shifts in a Red Cross shelter are twelve hours. I arrived in the afternoon for the overnight shift at a large facility. It had obviously been well cared for by those entrusted to be good stewards of the impressive space, which is usually a family life and youth center. The staff and congregation of Faith Bible Church had trained and practiced for three years to prepare for an event when a Red Cross shelter would be needed in their area. It was evident to me that they were dedicated to service as I witnessed the loving kindness of everyone I encountered.
The different areas were staffed for the evening. It would soon be time for the evening meal. So, I went to the kitchen where hot meals provided by a local caterer were served by Red Cross volunteers. Once the meals were served to guests and staff and the serving area was cleaned, I walked around and chatted with the guests; young mothers, an elderly lady in a wheelchair, a woman seated next to a piano, listening as another guest played. Each had their own story, some remembering with sadness their experience during Hurricane Katrina, just seven years ago. As I listened to them tell how they’d traveled there, some with strangers, some with family, leaving their homes, looking for a shelter, I was moved by how courageous they were.
Overnight I listened to volunteers sharing their own experiences as we cleaned bathrooms, put up health and safety instructions throughout the facility and waited for news about the hurricane and the possible arrival of more guests. Local officials toured the facility to get a better understanding of how a shelter operates and news crews interviewed some of the guests. Morning came, we served breakfast, then lunch. By early afternoon I was saying my goodbyes to a few of the people with whom I’d worked closely.
I learned some things in those eighteen hours; things about trust and the human spirit, about the value of practical experience and knowing when not to speak. Even a few things about politics.
It takes an enormous effort to coordinate the logistics of volunteers and services needed for a relief effort. Red Cross staff and volunteers work around the clock, not only during a disaster, but also every day to prepare for any eventuality. As it is with life, things don’t always go as planned. During times of stress, flexibility is key in making sure everyone stays focused on the goal. When priorities shift or unexpected circumstances arise, it is important to have the ability and willingness to roll with it. Everyone can demonstrate leadership; even in the role of a follower.
Yesterday I was exhausted and yet today, strangely energized.