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Volunteering in a Red Cross Emergency Shelter

July 9, 2010

Red Cross

If you have any time at all, I really urge you to get involved with the Red Cross.

I’m a Red Cross reserve volunteer. As a reserve I only get called when full time and part time volunteer personnel are all tapped. This is my first deployment. I’ve taken classes, I’ve participated in a full-scale shelter exercise, and for 11 September 2009 I was at ground zero providing basic support for victims’ families. But today my help is needed in an emergency role. There was a five alarm fire in Queens a couple nights ago that destroyed an apartment building – displacing about 100 people. Yesterday I did a shift at the emergency shelter.

2pm Thursday – I’m sitting in the garage at the Red Cross Greater NY HQ waiting for my group and van to show. I’m really not sure what to expect, but above all I hope that there’s something I can do to help the people stuck in the shelter I’m going to.

Friday afternoon – So, I got home last night around 12, and fell asleep after showering, and just woke up (slept through two alarms). Yesterday was crazy, chaotic, heartbreaking, and somehow still managed to be a memory I’ll always cherish. It is most definitely something I wish I could do more of.

I was really hoping to be able to take a few pictures throughout the day, but there was no time. Plus, one of the Red Cross mainstays is confidentiality, so it would have been a little sticky for me to pull out my phone and start shooting. Here’s a video the Red Cross posted on its chapter website.

It turned out that 4 out of the 5 volunteers we had for the shift had never done shelter work before. Our shelter manager had, but never as a shelter manager. Luckily, the others were experienced with the Red Cross in general.

Red Cross shelter

Our shelter dorm used these cots that it sometimes took 3 people to open!

The Introduction

I walked into the shelter in PS 102 in Elmhurst to be greeted by exhausted school security guards who directed us to the cafeteria. After following Red Cross signs it was a relief to step into the air conditioned room. At the client registration table a handful of exhausted volunteers were elated to see their replacements. Straight to business. I was awarded feeding duties by a round of “shotty-not.” The woman who had worked the kitchen in the morning shift quickly gave me a run through of the inventory and the facilities available for us. Apparently the school we were stationed in was nicer than most and allowed us to use their fridges and ice machine.

Dinner was set for 7pm. We put up signs, and everything after that is pretty much a blur. Time passed so quickly that I was shocked when the end of my shift came so early, but I already felt like I had been working for two days straight.

For the most part I was bound to the kitchen counting inventory, fielding questions from the clients hanging out in the cafeteria, or stocking the snack table. At other times however I was asked to help set up cots (ridiculously difficult contraptions), or count how many comfort kits we had and so 0n.

The Chaos

Very soon we realized we had a problem. We were running out of space for cots in the gym. We had had to separate the women and children from the men because of the mostly Muslim population. The men’s side was nearly empty, but the women’s side had space for only about 2 more.

Then we found out that another shelter for people displaced by a separate fire was closing down, and that it would merge with ours. We came up with a plan to move the men into a kindergarten classroom, and make one side of the gym for families who wanted to sleep together, and the other for single women or women who could not sleep in the same room with men.

Just as we were calling the residents together for a meeting to explain the situation and to give out some hot meals for dinner, the fire alarm went off. There was no fire. The thing had been malfunctioning all day, and they couldn’t get maintenance in until the next day. We moved everybody outside so we could hear each other. The custodian finally shut off the alarm 20 minutes later.

Dinner ended up being served about an hour late. AND, there was a mix up and we didn’t receive any Halal food. That made for some upset clients and rambunctious kids. Luckily after I explained the mix up they were very understanding. They settled for leftover Halal veggie wraps from lunch.

The Bitter-sweet Benefit

Once things settled, and people started moving to the sleeping quarters it was time for me to clean and count everything again in order to pass along restocking instructions. As I began throwing out empty water and food containers and picking up crayons, the kids who had been playing tag and drawing all day took an interest. Suddenly I had a gaggle of kids around me asking to help. I immediately thought back to my Psychological First Aid training, in which I learned that giving people tasks with meaning helps them feel more grounded in times of displacement. Plus, I could tell that the single mothers of the group were completely exhausted and could use some time without worrying about the kids.

I successfully got the kids to play the sweeping game while two more helped me pick up colored pencils and crayons.

“What’s your favorite color?” I asked.

“What’s your favorite color?” The little boy asks his older sister.


“Pink!” He says proudly.

“He copies me.” Proclaims the sister with her chin up and her chest puffed out.

Then another girl runs up, eager to present me with the gift of a drawing she had made. She was so happy. They all were. It was incredible to see their innocence. This whole ordeal was just an adventure for them. They were having fun. I taped the girl’s drawing up on the window of the kitchen.

A little later on the staff met with a Red Cross worker who had been doing damage assessment all day and was familiar with logistics. He told us that 5 families would never be able to return to their homes, and that 7 more might not be able to, at least for a long time. One of the buildings still wasn’t fully assessed, but it looked even worse. Suddenly I felt a wave of emotion overcome me. These people who had been so understanding, so kind, who had offered me ice cream, who held my hand and looked me in the eye when they spoke… These beautiful families… These elderly and disabled people…. Which ones weren’t going home? Who had lost their possessions forever? Who would no longer have family photos or inherited china?

I turned around to look at the people I had just gained intimate knowledge of, trying to guess who was about to get more bad news. I noticed the girl showing off the drawing I had taped up to a friend. That image stuck with me on the long somnambulist ride home.


One Comment leave one →
  1. July 10, 2010 4:05 pm

    wow. you make me want to go through the training. really great piece!

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