The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
Story and photos by Robert W. Wallace/American Red Cross
Memphis, Tennessee, March 12, 2014. “We were shopping at Home Depot when we got the call,” said Larry Williamson. Larry and his wife Lucyetta, residents of Millington, Tennessee, are volunteer members of a Disaster Action Team (DAT) at the Mid-South Chapter of the American Red Cross. They often receive calls that prompt them into action to deliver humanitarian assistance to residents of the six-county area covered by the Mid-South Chapter whose homes have been destroyed or damaged by fire.
On this day the call was about a fire at the Lantern View Apartment complex just off James Road in North Memphis. Based on information received from the Memphis Fire Department, it seemed likely that numerous residents would be displaced due to damage or total destruction of their homes. Lucyetta Williamson, a DAT Captain, immediately called her DAT Captain colleague Linda Bomes, another Millington resident, and made plans to meet her at the scene of the fire.
This is a scenario that occurs frequently in the Mid-South. Since the first of the year the Mid-South Chapter of the Red Cross has assisted more than 214 families who have had their homes damaged or destroyed by fire. So far in March, the chapter has responded, on average, to five fires a day. “No wonder we are tired,” said Jeana Bailley, Disaster Program Manager at the Mid-South Chapter. “We really need additional members of the community to step forward to receive training and become active in our Disaster Action Teams.”
Arriving at the scene of the fire around 3:00 pm, Lucyetta and Larry saw that the Memphis Fire Department had the fire well under control, and that a number of apartments were completely destroyed. Lucyetta began to set up in the common room of the apartment complex for confidential interviews with those whose homes had been consumed or damaged by the fire. Larry made a quick trip to the Mid-South Chapter offices to pick up a Red Cross van filled with blankets, water, snacks, and other supplies. Linda Bomes and Lucyetta began to interview clients affected by the fire.
Skillfully and with much compassion, Lucyetta and Linda spoke with families affected by the fire to determine their immediate needs and to complete the casework necessary for Red Cross assistance. Some of the clients were quite distressed: all the people affected by the fire managed to get out of their apartments safely, but many of them lost all their material possessions. Some families also lost cherished pets.
On numerous occasions, Lucyetta and Linda paused to offer comforting words and hugs to clients who were still in a haze of distress from the terrible turmoil of their devastating day. Along with a gentle touch, Lucyetta encouraged one client to “stay with me now,” as she worked to determine her needs. “The emotional support we offer is just as critical as the material support,” she said later as she mused over the day’s events.
Lucyetta vividly recalls a very upset client who was saying over and over that she would be all right if she could just get a Bible to replace the one lost in the fire. A Bible is not an item that the Red Cross usually provides; we work hard to maintain neutrality with regard to anything of a religious, political, racial, or ideological nature. However, this client was so distraught that Lucyetta made a phone call to her friend Bonnie and asked her for a favor: would she please purchase a Bible and bring it to the apartment site.
“Bonnie not only purchased a Bible, but also a very nice case for it with a verse on the outside from the book of Joshua that said something along the lines be not afraid or distressed. I gave the Bible and case to the client, and told her to pay attention to that verse. She was so relieved and much calmed,” said Lucyetta. “I think I will be OK now,” Lucyetta recalls the client saying as she clung to the Bible.
The fire affected a total of ten units of the apartment complex, with six units completely destroyed. Depending upon the needs of each client, the immediate assistance from the Red Cross could include food and shelter for several days, financial assistance to replace medicine, eyeglasses, or clothing that was lost in the fire, blankets, personal hygiene kits, and emotional support, including teddy bears that are often comforting to both children and adults. Referrals to other agencies were also provided where longer-term financial assistance or items needed to furnish a new home might be obtained.
By the time Lucyetta, Larry, and Linda finished interviewing all the fire clients and made sure everyone had a safe place to spend the night, resources for meals, and essential clothing and medicines for the next few days, it was well into the evening.
When I asked why they volunteer their time to do this hard work, noting that it must be emotionally draining, I received enthusiastic responses:
“It’s helping people. When I see someone or an animal hurt or in distress, I’m going to help them with everything that’s within my power. Actually, that’s been my lifelong ambition,” said Linda Bomes.
“I don’t consider it emotionally draining or hard work. When I get a call I want to go right out. I love it. Not the fact that they are displaced from their homes, but that I can help them. I love my clients, and I remember them; I can tell you all about them long after the fire,” said Lucyetta Williamson.
Larry Williamson says that he finds volunteer work with the Red Cross has a close correlation with his former profession as a police officer. “Most people don’t seem to realize that the police are there to help people, but just imagine what our society would be like without police officers. I love people, and I love to help them. That’s why I volunteer.” Larry concluded.
The Mid-South Chapter has a great need to add members to its Disaster Action Teams. If you think this might be a place where you can convert concern for your community into action, give the Mid-South Chapter a call at 901-672-6374 or e-mail Wanda.Doyle@redcross.org.