By JAMES EVANS
Emily Girard grew up in the small logging town of Florence, Oregon, along the Pacific coast.
She never imagined that one day she’d return to her home state to work in a disaster-response shelter, but through her involvement with the American Red Cross, she’s there for a two-week deployment helping those who have lost everything in the recent wildfires.
Emily serves as the disaster program manager for the Heart of Tennessee Chapter of the American Red Cross, which is based in Murfreesboro.
Staff members are required each year to deploy to at least one disaster, and so when the fires struck Oregon, Emily volunteered for the assignment.
“Their recovery is going to be long because there are communities that are completely burned,” Emily said via phone from a shelter in Portland, Oregon, where she is serving as a shelter lead.
The shelter is not currently near the fires but has been serving displaced residents who were directly affected, Emily said. There are multiple American Red Cross shelters serving the area, and at Emily’s, they’ve had up to 80 people at once, she said.
The experience has been a memorable one.
As part of the Heart of Tennessee Chapter of the American Red Cross, Emily has been deployed locally to neighboring communities, such as the tornadoes that affected the Cookeville area earlier this year.
In fact, she’s served at four relatively smaller disasters in Middle Tennessee, but the Oregon assignment has been her first large-scale regional deployment. Working with the people and seeing everyone serving one another has been truly meaningful, Emily said.
“It’s really where our mission comes into play,” she said, explaining, “We’re taking care of their basic needs.”
Volunteers are the backbone of the American Red Cross and are key to fulfilling its mission, said Tara Stone, executive director of the Heart of Tennessee chapter.
“Emily and all of our volunteers that are deployed right now, as well as all that have deployed in the past, do so because they want to help,” Stone said. “They have all done the training to be ready to serve others in their time of need, and I continue to be in awe of their dedication. Not only do they serve their local communities daily, but they also assist neighboring chapters and those across the United States when called upon.”
Another local volunteer who has been serving on the front lines is Mary Nichols, a retired mass communications professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Mary has spent her time working shelters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts during this turbulent hurricane season.
She first deployed to North Carolina as a shelter manager after Hurricane Isaias. Afterwards, she was deployed and “chased” Hurricane Marco, which threatened the Gulf coast. Marco eventually fizzled out and was downgraded to a tropical depression. But Mary remained in service and joined the team assisting with Hurricane Laura, which struck Louisiana in late August.
It may sound like a busy way for someone to spend their retirement, but she loves being part of an organization that serves others, Mary said.
“I do it because it gives me a feeling of giving back to the community, of course. That’s why most people do it,” Mary said, explaining, “That feeling of making people feel that they are still part of a community, even though they’ve just lost everything, that means a lot.”
Mary hasn’t been a lifelong American Red Cross volunteer.
About five years ago after retirement, she was vacationing abroad and met some others who had volunteered. That’s when the original seed was planted.
“My sister and I took a trip to China,” Mary said, “and in our tour group was a couple who did mental health and they had just come back from (Hurricane) Sandy or one of those and they were talking about all this stuff they were doing and I said, ‘You know we’ve got time. I’m retired. I should volunteer.’”
Mary’s sister started first and told her about the various ways she was volunteering and the training she received, and so Mary joined up.
She was only in for two weeks when she got deployed to assist with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, a powerful Category 5 hurricane that struck Mexico Beach, Florida, in October 2018. Mary’s deployment occurred about a month after the storm’s landfall strike and so she arrived at a time when the shelter and recovery efforts were already in full swing, she said.
“Everything was set up and established and it was really helpful to see it all running like clockwork,” Mary said of her first experience, where they were serving approximately 400 clients. “And that was a month out, so I can’t imagine what it was like in the beginning.”
She added: “I just learned a lot during that time and the people I worked with were just amazing.”
Mary’s message to those who are thinking about finding a way to help?
“They need people,” Mary said of the American Red Cross, “They’re desperate for people to go because they are stretched so thin (with the various emergencies right now).”
YOU CAN HELP by making a donation, giving blood, or by becoming a Red Cross volunteer.
Please donate to help now by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Your gift enables the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small.
Want to help people specifically affected by the different wildfires? Write “California Wildfires,” “Oregon Wildfires” or “Washington Wildfires” in the memo line of a check and mail it to your local Red Cross chapter with the completed donation form. For California Wildfires you can also text the word CAWILDFIRES to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
To help people impacted by Hurricanes Sally and Laura, visit redcross.org, calling 800-RED-CROSS or texting the word HURRICANES to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
You can make a significant impact as a Red Cross volunteer. With the current disasters and the complexities of COVID-19, more help is needed now. Become a Red Cross volunteer today. Review our most urgently needed volunteer positions at redcross.org/volunteertoday.
Wildfires have forced the cancellation of over 120 blood drives in California, Oregon and Washington, resulting in over 2,800 uncollected blood and platelet donations. Please schedule an appointment to donate by using the Red Cross Blood Donor app, visiting RedCrossBlood.org or calling 800-RED-CROSS. We stand ready to provide blood and blood products as needed in response to disaster. Through our national inventory system, the Red Cross has the ability to move blood around the country to wherever and whenever it is needed most.