It’s no secret that I work at American Red Cross and have been fundraising for disasters for three years now, but this week has been the most difficult, challenging and yet, also satisfying week of those three years. I was deployed to East Texas where I grew up, and I’ve been working every waking moment for five days now. I get to go home in another two days, and I’m exhausted and emotionally raw, but I don’t want to go home. I miss my fiance, my cat, and my bed, but I’m also feeling more alive and invigorated than I thought possible.
I’m really great at talking about the processes in disaster relief, describing the services Red Cross provides, and sharing stories of survivors, but this week I was speechless on more than one occasion.
I remember one distinct moment when I was talking to someone who survived the tornadoes, and I was moved by his genuine description of how he felt moments before the tornado struck and he just knew it was the end. Except it wasn’t. Facing death isn’t easy for anyone, but staring it down the nose and powerless to stop it is absolutely terrifying. This man’s words shook me, and all I could do was nod over and over. I could feel my heart struggling, and my mouth was dry. I was speechless and lost, but I had a job to do, and I did it. Thank God my only job in that moment was to be present and listen. I’m still reeling from that moment, and it was almost three days ago now.
Death and loss are all around following a disaster. People and animals die. For many, hope dies and then is reborn. Financial security in the impacted community is threatened, and sometimes lost entirely. People lose their homes and sometimes their livelihoods. Animals lose their homes and their familiar paths. Communities lose their familiar landmarks and threaten the memories that were made there. Some communities lose their identity and gain a new one.
Logically, every disaster destroys more and more life, and could easily lead to the complete destruction of the world, but disasters are happening all the time, and we simply chug along. How is this even possible?
In the face of adversity, people come together and spark hope. As they continue to work together to help communities recover, the spark grows into a powerful wall that pushes suffering and loss aside to make way for joy and hope again.
When I walked up to homes missing roofs, walls, doors, windows, and more, I was expecting the people whose home was destroyed to be sad, crying, and hopeless–but most of them were expressing exactly the opposite. They were thankful to be alive, and although their lives became much more challenging, they put one foot in front the next and frequently expressed compassionate concern for their neighbors whose lives were lost and whose livelihoods would be harder to recover.
I had a really hard time talking to people who clearly had lost everything but also insisted they didn’t need any help. I wanted to insist they accept my help, but I also remembered my training that teaches you how to help a survivor and honor their requests.
Many insisted they didn’t need any help, but were also quick to inform me about a friend or neighbor they knew needed extra help. Everyone deals with trauma differently, but when an entire community is impacted, there’s this force of hope that fills the town and the hearts of those who see it from afar.
It’s a miraculous thing to work on a disaster relief operation, because you live to serve others the entire time you’re there. First world problems are just that, and you’ll “deal with those” when the relief operation is over. It gives you a humble dose of perspective, and it’s stressful and intense, and sometimes downright frustrating, but each moment is precious, and every task alleviates suffering for someone who needs compassion and love.
You spend every moment with fellow Red Crossers, and by the third day, you’ve learned more about your new colleagues than you’ve ever learned about each other in the many years of working side-by-side during blue skies. I have made friends this week that I truly believe will become lifelong friendships, and I have mad respect for every single person on the relief operation.
Even after spending long arduous days together, you treat each other with dignity and compassion, because you’ve been treated the same, and judgement and nasty criticism will only ensure everyone suffers. Arguments happen, problems arise hourly, but we support each other while constantly keeping the clients in mind, and the final result is absolutely remarkable. Hope is sparked and sustained, and the community heals. Some become stronger while others never recover, and I honestly think the difference could be related to the amount of hope filling the community.