Knocking on Doors

During times of trouble, you can count on American Red Cross volunteers like Mike Woods to arrive on scene with a smile on their face (though it may be hard to see through the face mask)! Our Red Cross volunteer spent his days knocking on the doors of Butte County hotels to deliver meals to residents displaced by the recent fires. If you’re interested in joining our team please go to http://www.redcross.org/volunteertoday.

Wildfire Survivor Story: William and Sondra Weidman

William and Sondra Weidman evacuated the North Complex Fire where their home and 250 acres were destroyed. The Weidmans relocated to the Elk’s Lodge RV park since leaving their home in Kanaka Mountain. The American Red Cross has done a damage assessment on their home, and William visited our Local Assistance Center where we made sure he and Sondra had a place to stay and money to cover their immediate needs.

Helping Hands From New York

“We want all of them to know that we are here to support this neighborhood, support this community, support this state… we are going to make sure that we take care of every last person.”

While Joe Spaccarelli is the program director of the home fire program in the Greater New York Region, in his spare time he enjoys helping his fellow community by deploying to national disasters, including this year’s Northern California wildfires.

Joe highlights the importance of helping every single person during their time of need and discusses how challenging it has been helping people during a Covid environment. In addition, Joe really wants those impacted by the wildfires to know that they have some of the most passionate volunteers out there willing to help.

Thank you to New Yorker, Joe Spaccarelli, for lending a hand in the 2020 Northern California wildfires!

Decades of Work Gone- But We Still Have a Future

Longtime Trinity County resident and Marine Corps Veteran Jim Bruffett lost his home in the recent fire and saw footage of his 1952 Marine Corps Jeep burning. Bruffett is grateful that the Red Cross was able to acquire a hotel room that allowed him to stay with his dog. Through his heartache, he remains hopeful of the future and is excited to welcome a new granddaughter in the upcoming months.

Please watch Jim’s story.

Women get the work done

By Jennifer Sparks, American Red Cross

Driving into the mountains towards Berry Creek, the world becomes monochrome. Everything on the ground is blackened, broken up by patches of white ash. Where structures once stood—homes, garages, sheds, and outbuildings—there are now scorches of earth dotted with twisted metal and pools of plastic. It’s eerily quiet. With nothing alive in the immediate area and no leaves for wind to rustle, the only sound is buzzing flies to add to the apocalyptic feel of the scene ahead.

Disaster Assessment duo Diane Sargent and Suzanne Reibson are unphased. Having flown into California from Buffalo, New York, this team know what they’re looking for and get right to work.

Assessing what’s known as a “hot spot”, they quickly make their way around the property. The owners have already called the Red Cross for assistance, and Diane and Suzanne are checking for the livability of the house on the address. They also note other properties they pass, trying to make an assessment from the end of the driveway when there is no one to ask if they need further assistance—striving to ensure that no one is left in need.

It’s clear there is no possibility of living in these homes in Berry Creek anymore.

No stranger to destruction, Diane has been a volunteer for the American Red Cross for nineteen years. She joined right after 9/11 after seeing the Red Cross response first-hand. Over 80 deployments later, she is an expert in disaster assessment and mentors Suzanne who has been a volunteer for about three years.

As Diane navigates the rutted dirt roads, Suzanne enters data on the properties they’ve visited when there is cell reception and follows the paper map to track their route through the mountains when there’s not.

Coming down from Berry Creek for a quick gas stop, Diane and Suzanne are already plotting their next route. An elderly woman who is currently living in a tent near her daughter’s mobile home must soon vacate the tent, so she called the Red Cross for help.

And help has arrived in the form of small, wiry, tattooed Diane and vivacious Suzanne with her blue-polished fingernails saying, “Hi, honey! How are you doing today? We’re just heading out to your house, can you tell us where to turn again?”  

To help people who’ve lost their homes to the wildfires, visit redcross.org/donate, call 800 RED CROSS, or text CAWILDFIRES to 90999 to make a $10 donation. You can also become a volunteer like Diane and Suzanne by visiting redcross.org/volunteer.

Free legal aid for folks affected by wildfires

By Kristine Liao, American Red Cross California Gold Country Region volunteer

As the smoke clears and recovery begins, Californians impacted by the recent wildfires often face a variety of disaster-related legal issues. Thanks to the American Red Cross legal partners, Legal Services Corporation and the American Bar Association Disaster Legal Services, free legal services are available.

“The Red Cross values our partnership with the legal community and appreciates the assistance and invaluable service they provide to communities,” said Mary Dewitt-Dia, National Partnerships Manager.

From navigating insurance claims to requests for government programs such as FEMA assistance, a coalition of organizations and law firms in North America are ready to help.

“The partnership between Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative and the Red Cross is so exciting,” said Alexa Villagomez Montlavo, Disaster Legal Services Coordinator at Legal Access Alameda. “We have so many great free legal aid programs available to those impacted by the recent wildfires.  It’s one thing to have resources ready for those in need, but by partnering with the Red Cross it’s another way to make sure that the resources are making their way to the people that may need them.”

Janet Snyder of the Alameda County Bar Association said, “I am proud and excited about our partnership with the Red Cross. There is true strength in numbers, and joining forces will allow us to connect more disaster survivors with free legal assistance. We want disaster survivors to know that they are not alone, and that we are here to offer support in their recovery process.”

“Providing FREE legal help after a disaster ensures that low-income disaster survivors receive needed legal assistance,” Mary added. “Problems can often be resolved quickly therefore preventing additional complications.”

If you need help navigating legal issues, please visit disasterlegalservicesca.org or call the free Disaster Legal Assistance Hotline at 888-382-3406. You can also submit legal questions at ca.freelegalanswers.org

“We’re just here to inspire hope”: American Red Cross Spiritual Care Volunteers help heal invisible wounds

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.

Bill Hart, Disaster Spiritual Care Lead

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.

Spiritual Care

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*.”

COVID Precautions

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.