By Jennifer Sparks, American Red Cross
Bill Hart has the kind of voice that makes you feel like everything is going to be OK. This is ideal for a man in his position—Spiritual Care Lead for the American Red Cross Gold Country Region as we provide comfort and care to people displaced by the wildfires in northern California.
He has filled the Disaster Spiritual Care (DSC) role for the Gold Country Region of the Red Cross since September 2016. “Spiritual care is one part of a three-legged stool, along with mental health and health services. Together we form individual disaster care. We try to look at the mind, body and soul and provide care to all of those areas.”
Bill has been very active responding to the fires and earthquakes that happen across California, notably spending 89 days working on the Camp Fire response and currently providing support to disaster relief operations in northern areas of the state. “Wildfire response has become kind of a specialty,” he said. “In a wildfire, when everything is burnt down to ashes, recovery can feel insurmountable. We want them to start telling their story and moving towards hope.”
Bill’s path into the Red Cross is a windy one. After a couple of personal losses involving a family member in hospice, Bill recognized that primary care givers do not often get much support as they are losing loved ones. Finding a group that provides exactly that kind of care led Bill to become a hospital chaplain, and from there a chaplain that serves the armed forces. A Methodist minister, he met a Red Cross spiritual care volunteer through a mutual pastor friend who asked if he might be interested in volunteering as a Red Cross spiritual care provider.
A local to northern California, Bill lives in a small town in the Sierra Mountains about halfway between Sacramento and Reno. He has been ready to evacuate himself in years past, especially when the Bear River canyon was on fire within a few miles of his home. “It got pretty exciting for a while. They managed to keep it contained to the canyon, but we were all loaded up and watching it carefully,” he recalled.
The American Red Cross Spiritual Care team is trained to recognize the signs that someone may need assistance. They will look for someone who might be hoarding snacks at the shelters, or who is turning their cot area into their home. Agitation, pacing, isolation, anger, crying are also key indicators they watch for. “To do this job, you have to be ready for people to swear and yell at you and blame you for all their problems, and let them know we’re still there for them. But it’s really about getting to know the client. At the beginning of the operation we’re looking for the obvious signs. But then we get to know people and see how their moods may change. And people will come find us.”
Building relationships underpinned by trust is key to making a positive impact on people who have evacuated their homes. “Spiritual Care is in the shelters all day, every day. We don’t wait for people to come to us. We’re out in the shelters and spend mealtimes with people, or recreation time, and we’re constantly circulating around the grounds and other areas where people might be gathering, like the laundromat. And we start to get to know people, so they recognize us and we start building trust.”
A key time to be present with people is when they make the first trip back to their home after a wildfire. Bill says that people often stay in a shelter because they can’t go back home because there’s nothing left. “They often have a little spark of hope that somehow their house was spared, and that spark doesn’t go out until they’re standing in the middle of the ashes of their house.”
One case that really stands out to Bill is that of a ninety-two-year-old man standing in the middle of his driveway, surrounded by the remains of his home after a catastrophic wildfire. He had moved into that house four years previously with his wife who then passed away from cancer. Having outlived his spouse and children and then losing his home to a wildfire, he worried that there would be nothing on earth left to prove he had ever existed.
With fires burning regularly across the state, Bill has seen some of the same faces in Red Cross shelters after different evacuations. “I encountered numerous individuals who have repeatedly evacuated the last couple of years, and several that have just about finished with rebuilding. Some know they’ve lost their new homes. I’ve remembered some, some remember me, all remember the Red Cross was there when they needed us. One man I met in Redding the other day was pretty sure he’d lost his home again but stopped by [the shelter] to try to make a cash donation to help others*.”
As important as physical comfort often is in spiritual care, COVID-19 precautions have made it nearly impossible to provide a shoulder to lean on, a hug, or a hand to hold. “People will reach towards us to be hugged, and it’s very difficult to say no because we’ve worked to get them to open up. We don’t want to maintain social distancing. We want to be there to hold your hand and be a shoulder. But we just have to keep everyone safe.” Bill explained that for a while the spiritual care team tried to work over the phone, but it was just not as effective as face to face. The connection between volunteer and evacuee is much more robust when they are in-person.
Most importantly for Bill is that people affected by disasters don’t let the word ‘spiritual’ keep them from seeking care. “We’re not the religious group that people might think of. We’re there for everybody. If it’s not something that we can help with, we find someone who can. We’re just there to inspire hope.”
*We are incredibly grateful to members of the public whose generosity and impulse to help lead them to attempt making cash donations. To ensure financial transparency and responsible use of the donor dollar, we cannot accept cash donations and ask that all donations be made online at redcross.org/donate or by texting REDCROSS to 90999.