Helping Folks on the Road to Recovery

The Yuba Sutter Red Cross Shelter in Yuba City is a large cavernous building that was home to about 80 people who evacuated the city of Paradise and beyond, to flee the Camp Fire. Their cots are neatly lined up at the back of the building, most of their belongings stashed underneath. Red Cross medical staff are set up along the far wall to provide various medical needs including replacing prescriptions, eyeglasses, wheelchairs, and more. The opposite side of the shelter is lined with table after table of colorful clothes, books, kids’ arts, and crafts, toiletries, and household goods, ready for folks to select what they need. A little brown-haired girl with a sweet face tries out some of the toys as she takes in snippets of the video that plays in the small children’s play area. Snacks and drinks are also available for between meal nibbling.

VOLUNTEER_Linda and Barry (1)And, tucked into a quiet corner seated together are Linda DeVane and Barry Abromovage, Red Cross volunteer caseworkers. Each has traveled more than 2,500 miles to this place to do what they can to help.

Linda watched the news about the Camp Fire from her home in Macon, Georgia. She knew the devastation was terrible, and says, “You don’t realize until you’re right here in the middle of it, how bad it is.” It’s important for people to have someone to talk to. “It means a lot,” sighs Linda, not just to them, but to us too.”

Over the past several days, Linda and Barry have worked with over 60 individuals at the shelter to help them start down the long road to recovery. “We try to get them thinking about future plans,” Barry notes. Linda and Barry let people know that when they’re ready to leave the shelter, the Red Cross will help with their transition. They are not facing the future on their own, but for now, life is pretty tough.

The folks at the shelter had no idea that they would spend this Thanksgiving away from home in an unfamiliar setting. However, Linda and Barry knew. In fact, Barry arranged his deployment to ensure that he would be here over the Thanksgiving holiday. He wanted to be here to help people like the family he met recently. The children’s school burned, their church burned, their home burned, the places where the parents worked burned. And Barry was there to help, to hear their story, painfully similar to so many others he and Linda have listened to since arriving at the shelter.

Linda and Barry, two Red Cross volunteers, who chose to leave their homes in Lebanon, Virginia and Macon, Georgia to travel across the country to Yuba City, California— because this Thanksgiving, this is where they are needed most.

By Marlene Stamper, American Red Cross Volunteer

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After Heroic Escape, Red Cross Shelter and Music Provide Comfort

It might seem that Joe Avila doesn’t have a lot to be grateful for, after losing everything he owned — including 2,000 books from his library and all the music and instruments he used to teach music — when his hometown of Paradise burned to the ground in the Camp Fire on Nov. 8.

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But Avila, 64, says he’s grateful for a lot: that he escaped with his life, that the American Red Cross and other organizations have provided him with a safe place to stay and taken good care of him in an evacuation shelter in the Oroville Nazarene Church, and that kind community members have given him a used guitar and replaced some of the books he was using to study theology.

He’s also heard from FEMA that they’ll give him some assistance, and he’s working with a Red Cross recovery team to find an apartment to move into.

Sitting at one of the dining tables outside the church shelter that had been his home since he escaped just in front of the fire, Avila talked about what happened that morning, after he looked outside his apartment door to see the building next door on fire. As he spoke, he took several breaks to strum his donated guitar and sing several classic songs, providing his own music therapy.

Avila said he had peeked outside because he’d seen a bright light through the window even though the power had gone out.

“I got up, and I opened the door, and the building across from me was on fire. It was only about 30 feet away from me,” he said.

Another building in his senior complex of about 100 apartments was also on fire, he said.

“I just knew it was very serious,” he said. “I just grabbed my walker. I didn’t have any shoes or socks on; I just had my pants and my shirt,” he said.  “I looked up, the roof of my complex was on fire.”

He said that he didn’t even recognize the scene he saw, and later realized it was because a wooden fence that had screened part of his view of the complex had burned to the ground.

Trees were bursting into flames, embers flying and windows blowing out. He heard noises that sounded like bullets exploding, Avila said.

He hid behind a dumpster when the wind worsened the firestorm. “Some of the apartments started exploding behind me,” he said. “That’s when I lost my walker. It went flying across the parking lot.”  When the rubber lid to the dumpster caught fire, “that’s when I had to start crawling across the parking lot to get my walker. If I had stayed there, I would have caught on fire, easily,” he said.

“I couldn’t see the street; it was so smoky,” he said.  “I could see about 20 feet.”

Avila said he didn’t have time to be afraid.

“I just knew I had to get out of there,” he said. “I just knew I had to go, to keep moving.”

Avila said soon after he rescued his walker and made it to the street, his knees bloodied, a police car stopped, and officers told him to jump in. After picking up one other man escaping from the fire, they drove them to the evacuation shelter that had been set up at the Nazarene Church in Oroville.

Avila, who will be 65 in December, said he’d lived in Paradise for about 15 years. When

his home burned, “I lost all my musical instruments, my keyboards, my guitars, my amplifiers, foot pedals” as well as all the music he’s collected over the years. His library of about 2,000 books included books on theology, psychology, philosophy and quantum mechanics as well as music, he said.

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Generous community members who visited the shelter brought him a used guitar. Others promised to order him some of the most important books he’d used to study theology, Avila said. The church provided him with any clothing or other things he needed, including a brand-new pair of sneakers.

He said he’s grateful to the Red Cross volunteers, including medical professionals, who have been “very attentive and compassionate.”

 

He said he feels the Red Cross volunteers he has interacted with genuinely care about him and his needs. “It doesn’t feel like it’s their job and they don’t mean what they’re saying,” he said.

“Whatever I needed,” he said he was told, “don’t hesitate to ask.”

As Avila finished sharing the story of his escape from Paradise, he abrupted jumped up.

“I have to take a break,” he said.

CLIENT_Joe Avila1He rushed over to where a group of local college student musicians was setting up to entertain the shelter residents and sat down at their keyboard.

Soon he was playing and belting out “Amazing Grace.” He began smiling and visibly relaxed.

“I had to do that,” he said when he’d finished.

Playing music, both on his guitar and his keyboard, he said, is something he was used to doing several times a day, especially since his wife died eight years ago.

“It was a way of expressing my grief, my joy, my loneliness,” he said.

Story and photos by Barbara Woods, American Red Cross volunteer

A Place to Mourn and Recover

Brandi Cloutier is mourning the loss of her home and her hometown of Paradise after the Camp Fire reduced the small town to rubble and ash. 

20181204_104659Brandi was at home sleeping until she was alerted to the Camp Fire by her dog Boss.  She had only minutes to get out of her home because the next door neighbor’s house was already on fire.  She hopped into one friend’s car but they quickly got gridlocked. Because they were at a standstill the back tire caught on fire from the intense heat and popped.  So they proceeded on foot until another friend picked her up.

She doesn’t remember what time of day it was but everything was pitch black because of all the smoke.  All around her there were explosions every few minutes from propane tanks.  She was petrified; it was like a war zone. Then they got gridlocked again.  They got out of the car to ask people where do we go to get out?  The Sheriff couldn’t even direct them, he just said to run. Finally, the gridlock eased and they were able to get out by driving right through the fire at one point. 

Two images Brandi will never forget was a horse that had run by with its tail on fire and she saw people who were on fire. She is grateful for her life but is mourning the loss of her hometown.

She feels her peace of mind was taken and it will never be the same again. She found herself staying in the Church of Nazarene Red Cross shelter in Oroville at first before coming to Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. 

“The Red Cross has been very kind and supportive. My hometown where I got married, had a child, went to church, worked and had friends. It’s all gone.  They’ve been especially accommodating to my dog Boss. They’ve been really cool with him. They didn’t have to make accommodations but they did so we could be near one another while I figure out what’s next.” 

Story and photo by Vivian Moy, American Red Cross volunteer

Many Hands Make Light Work

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The Red Cross is grateful that local volunteers have been coming forward to help those affected by the Camp Fire. With volunteers currently making up 94% of the Red Cross, volunteers are needed and are essential in helping with the recovery process. Help is welcomed and needed, to help those affected by the fire.

Local Red Cross volunteer, Giselle Sutter briefly reflects on her land loss in Paradise but says “it is my honor to help my neighbors.” Giselle volunteers at the Butte County Fairgrounds Shelter and helps incoming volunteers navigate the volunteer process.

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Lauren Fletcher, a local counselor, spoke with shelter staff at the Butte County Fairgrounds Shelter and after learning how to become a Red Cross volunteer, she applied online and is waiting on her background check to get started. When asked what she recommends for anyone interested in helping she says “go to your car and just do it before other things start to come up.”

The Red Cross is proud that a majority of our workforce are volunteers. Local volunteers are essential to not only help but also to remind shelter residents that their community has their back!

For locals interested in helping a local Red Cross shelter, we ask that you sign-up online as an event-based-volunteer (EBV), create a profile and provide information so that a background check can be conducted at https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html.

Story by Amy De La Fuente, American Red Cross volunteer

Photos by Elvia Alaniz and Amy De La Fuente, American Red Cross volunteer 

Conflicting Emotions Are Normal After A Disaster

After the Camp Fire swept through his hometown of Magalia, California, Ken Kupstas wasn’t sure what shape his home was in. He had been out running errands and couldn’t get back into the town.

Firefighters found his dog of 14 years, a Chihuahua named Precious at home, but she was beyond help, so Ken had to do the one thing he didn’t want to do.

“It was hard to give her up, but I didn’t want my little girl to suffer, I really didn’t,” the 82-year-old widower said. “She was my best friend, and I had to do what was best for her.”

VOLUNTEER_mental health1Ken knew his home was there but didn’t how bad it might have been damaged until a friend showed him a video on a smartphone of his neighborhood. He stared intently until he finally saw his home, intact and still standing.

“There it is, there it is,” he said excitedly as he watched outside a Red Cross shelter in Chico where he’s staying. “Oh my, it’s still there.”

Nearby, Holly Cristofaro, a Red Cross mental health counselor at the shelter who had talked to Ken before, heard the news and rushed over to hug him.

VOLUNTEER_mental health2“Oh, what a relief for you,” Holly said to Ken as he fought back the tears and smiled. “This is so nice to hear.”

As they parted, Holly said, “We still want to be here for you.”

Holly, a social worker in Boston, explained that often after people have been through an ordeal like waiting to hear about the fate of their home, the feelings of physical exhaustion start catching with them.

She said while Ken got some good news. Still, he’s like so many others going through the ordeal of loss and not sure about the future.

“You support them and let them tell their story, let them share. It can mean a lot to them to have someone listen to what they’ve gone through,” Holly said.

Those who escaped the wildfire are faced with an array of feelings.

Holly said many are dealing with their initial fears of not surviving and recalling the heat as they fled. Others are feeling bad about having to leave their pets because they only had a few minutes to get to safety and many pets ran away in a panic.

Then there is the feeling of gratitude for being alive, tempered by not knowing what is going to happen next.

Holly said many of those she has talked with have shown so much resiliency and determination to overcome the adversity.

“It’s a good sign of being able to recover,” Holly said.

For Ken, all those feelings have become part of his life, and while the future may be uncertain, he’s ready to face it.

“I believe things will get better, I really do,” he said. “I’ve been a fighter all my life. I’m too ornery to give up.”

To reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.

Story and photos by Carl Manning, American Red Cross volunteer