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I am the Red Cross.

I am the American Red Cross in my community. This is my community.

On warm summer nights when I was little, my big sister and I would sleep with the bedroom windows open. The sound of cicadas mixed with the faint sound of stock cars racing around the Peoria Speedway track a few miles away. It’s a sound from my childhood that I may not hear for a while. Just a few days ago, the Speedway’s track and office building were underwater because Kickapoo Creek flooded its banks.

Flooding along the Illinois River and Kickapoo Creek is not uncommon. I learned what the word “sandbagging” meant pretty early in life. But this year is historic. The river’s rise has broken a record set back in 1943.

For the first time ever, I’m able to help in a small way. I’ve worked with the Red Cross for more than four years now. Usually, I help spread the word about the importance of blood donation. About five weeks ago, I went through training to communicate about disasters. As I sat through workshops, I had no idea that the first time I would use that Red Cross training would be in my own hometown.

On Thursday, I followed a Red Cross emergency response vehicle into the small town of Spring Bay as the volunteers on board handed out hot meals. I held Adam Lloyd’s 7-month-old son, Gabriel, for a minute as Adam picked up bottles of water and containers of chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes and vegetables. Floodwaters lapped up against their home and the home of Adam’s mother nearby. The Illinois River had just crested in Spring Bay the day before. Inch by painfully small inch, the waters had started to recede. Some of the roads in Spring Bay were still impassable, but the excitement of the Red Cross driver was palpable as he explained that he and his crew were able to get farther into the neighborhood than they had the day before.

Carolyn & Dan PasquiniIt’s my job to tell Adam and Gabriel’s story, as well as the story of how the Red Cross is helping them and their neighbors. The help has come from volunteers like Carolyn and Dan Pasquini, who staffed a Red Cross shelter in Chillicothe, Ill. Just like me, this was their first time on a Red Cross disaster assignment. When I arrived, Carolyn and Dan had just received word that a family of three was on its way to spend the night. They were talking about ways to make the family, particularly the 9-year-old boy, as comfortable as possible.

Many hearts in my hometown are breaking right now. In some ways, my heart is broken. I’ve seen the Illinois River overflow the Peoria RiverFront where I spend summer nights at concerts and festivals. In the very spot where my 6-year-old niece danced on a stage for the Irish festival last year, I can see a water mark where the water crested at the height of the flood.

I know that places like the RiverFront and the Peoria Speedway will recover relatively quickly. Festivals will be held along the river and stock cars will race along the track this summer. But, I also know that it will take much more time for life to get back to normal for people like Adam and his son.

This area – Peoria and its surrounding communities – is called the “heart of Illinois.” I’d like to think that has more to do with the people than simple geography. The hearts of those who live here are big. Volunteers like the Pasquinis are uncommonly common in central Illinois. And when disaster strikes we all want to help. Thanks to my Red Cross training, I can play my small part in my hometown’s recovery.

I’m so proud to be a Red Crosser and I invite you to join me. Don’t wait for a disaster to hit your hometown. Check out volunteer opportunities with your local Red Cross and get trained now. Then you can be ready to respond in your community or a community like mine. Call 1-800-RED CROSS or visit redcross.org to learn more.

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