By the time you read this, I will be back in Cottonwood Heights. But right now I am writing on my smartphone in Conway, Ark., as a Red Cross Disaster Relief Volunteer supporting the effort to assist local folks who just came through more than two dozen devastating tornadoes that have racked seven states.
I am sitting in a rental car at the side of the road. On the seat next to me is a half-eaten hot dog and a bottle of water that I picked up from one of 55 roving Red Cross feeding trucks also manned by volunteers.
I won’t tell you about the extensive destruction, which you can google, or see on YouTube. Instead, let me share what you don’t usually find on local TV news, or CNN or the Internet. What I see around me are hundreds of Red Cross and other non-profit agency volunteers from all over America, from Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, California, both Washingtons, all over the country.
Many volunteers are young, but most of us are retired, older, slower, but more experienced both in emotional and physical pain mitigation.
We know how to help people under stress to navigate FEMA, state, private insurance and other agencies who inundate people in need with complex forms to fill out. We volunteers provide immediate emergency food, temporary shelter, medical assistance and intellectual assistance until bureaucratic relief comes through.
And we give meaningful "It’s going to be all right" hugs, which, believe it or not, are every bit as important as the financial and administrative assistance we help with.
I met a young dad yesterday who was visiting his in-laws with his wife and 4-year-old son when they heard that characteristic freight train roar outside. The tornado missed the in-laws and everyone was safe.
But, when they raced back home, he said, "Nothing was left of our home. It was as if nothing had been on our lot. We were completely cleaned out."
A Red Cross volunteer gave his son a Mickey Mouse toy, which then became the child’s only possession, and another volunteer helped dad reorganize his and his family’s lives.
I also interviewed a trailer-park survivor and his three pre-teen sons, who were lucky to have escaped relatively uninjured when the twister skirted his trailer and overturned several others around him.
"It was over in a minute," he said. "Trailers around us just exploded and people were yelling for help."
When the winds died down, he and his boys ran to the aid of an 85-year-old neighbor with a broken pelvis and now he has come here for our help. Twelve people died in this sector, and the thousands who survived are in various stages of need.
People ask me why I take time from retirement to go on Red Cross disaster deployments. It’s hard to describe. You have to come with me and look into a child’s eyes. And his dad’s. Then you’ll know why tens of thousands of us do this, and maybe you will want to join us on the 150 or so national disasters and thousands of smaller, local ones we respond to every year.
I spoke to a Red Cross volunteer from a nearby Arkansas town and asked her why she was here helping. "I’m not helping them. They’re helping me," she said. "Everyone should be told how good it makes you feel to bring smiles to these faces."
Stan Rosenzweig, Cottonwood Heights, is a Red Cross disaster relief volunteer who was also deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
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