by Maria F. Melo, Disaster Services Volunteer
I love volunteering and working with the Latino community: I like to say it’s in my blood. I have a talent for it and I’ve been doing it for several years in Los Angeles.
What I didn’t know until the night I got my first call from the American Red Cross L.A. Region Disaster Action Team (DAT) was how meaningful it could be to help a family who had just lost everything to a sudden house fire: home, belongings and sense of safety in the world.
I received the call just before 6 p.m. Two people needed assistance in Highland Park. I had signed up for my first shift just two days before and did not know the call would come that soon. I was literally in pajamas when my phone rang.
I changed quickly and set out for the West Los Angeles office, where I met up with John Luong, the volunteer team leader. On the ride, John prepared me for the visit and shared his experiences volunteering in New York after Hurricane Sandy. As we approached the site, I was inspired and got a sense from him about what an American Red Cross volunteer could do to help a person, family and community.
But it is one thing to hear a story and another to experience it.
I met Ana (not her real name), one of the two people we would help that night, and her neighbor on the site of her burnt home. John led the way with confidence, asking the right questions and assessing the situation patiently but quickly. Ana lived with her ninety-one year old Spanish-speaking grandmother in a one-bedroom house. Ana had been out when the fire started by a lit candle, which quickly spread to other areas of the home.
We entered the house and found a burnt bedroom, smoked-damaged walls throughout the house and furniture everywhere, as well as damaged belongings scattered all over the floor and the front yard. Ana’s grandmother was safe and waiting at a neighbor’s house.
Something most people do not know is that once the fire and police departments are gone, many residents are left with no place to go. In Ana’s case, the neighbors could not take them in. As for family, this was not an option either. Ana was an only child, and her mother had bought the house a few years before passing away, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother.
The American Red Cross had a solution to the immediate situation. It took us less than 40 minutes to arrange a two-night stay at a nearby hotel that had a prior agreement with the Red Cross. We also arranged for transportation and a modest, though helpful amount of money on an activated credit card to help them get through the next two days.
I was amazed to discover that we could actually provide tangible resources, right then and there, to provide shelter and food to Ana and her grandmother. As a volunteer, it was like discovering you could be a super-hero – in a real life situation!
That night, thanks to the American Red Cross, Ana and her grandmother were able to get some sleep in safe place after a heart-breaking day. I was deeply moved by Ana when she thanked us as we said goodbye. I was just as moved to learn that volunteers such as John and organizations like the American Red Cross do this every day.
Having worked in a Latino Consulate in Los Angeles, I was frequently faced with the situation of wanting to do more without having the necessary tools to do. So, I have to admit after responding to my first DAT call I felt like Superwoman.
In a way, I got a sense that every DAT call offered a miracle, either giant ones in the face of terrible disasters such as Katrina or Sandy, or “smaller” ones like the hundreds of house fires that occur in the Los Angeles Region.
When we drove away in our American Red Cross van, I realized that responding to my first DAT call was a reminder of a very personal life calling to help others in times of need. I was proud to be part of the team.