First, You Listen

“What happened?”

It’s one of the first things Red Cross volunteer Caitlin Po asks when she goes out to a fire.

“Everything starts out with just listening to them,” she said.

The Disaster Action Teams she leads with the Red Cross are called to respond to disasters big and small, most of them home fires. They listen to the stories of those whom the fires affect. They figure out who is in each household and provide emotional and financial help.

They help residents “organize their recovery,” Caitlin said. For most people, it’s the first time they’ve experienced a fire. They don’t know whom to call. How to make sure their home isn’t looted. Even what cleaning products will get rid of the smoky smell.

Caitlin and her well-trained team answer those questions. You call the utilities, your job, your kids’ school. If you have insurance, you call the insurance company.

Even over the course of a couple of hours, Caitlin said she sees people change, begin to recover. She sees the impact she and her team have.

Caitlin, a microbiologist by profession, came to the Red Cross expecting to run blood drives. When she heard about all of the opportunities, though, she decided to volunteer with the First Aid Services Team providing first aid at large public events. Then she added Disaster Action Team to her Red Cross resume.

The scenes she sees and the stories she hears stay with her. Like the older woman, living with her son, whose home burned down. All the woman cared about was the urn that held another son’s ashes.

“I’m too tired to start again,” the woman said.

Caitlin told her, “If you can make it through that, (her other son’s death), you can get through this.”

Responding to events like this, Caitlin said, “You can instantly see that you’re helping them.”  In the space of a couple of hours, she can see the positive impact she and her team are having.

Then there was the explosion in the maintenance building of an 85-unit apartment complex. It was so strong it rocked the foundation, making the units unlivable.

Caitlin was first on the scene and faced with the monumental task of organizing the immediate Red Cross response. But she wasn’t alone. Beyond the team she was leading, she received calls from volunteers who weren’t on call that night. The message was the same: “Let me help.”

“There are no volunteers like the volunteers with the Red Cross…To see that commitment to the Red Cross was awesome.”

The Red Cross takes care of its volunteers, Caitlin said. That care starts with the team leaders who help their teams debrief on the way home. Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteers, who hold professional mental health credentials, might also follow up with team members.

Caring and cared for, volunteers are ready for the next call.

The Red Cross has a place for you to use your skills and develop your interests! To find out how to become an awesome Red Cross volunteer, visit http://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer#step1.

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