Written by Amy Laurel Hegy, American Red Cross volunteer, and originally appeared on RedCross.org
As a young woman during World War II, Esme Griffiths gave her heart to the British Red Cross. As evacuees from the San Diego County Lilac Fire, Esme and her husband, Jack, found themselves clients in San Diego County American Red Cross shelters. Speaking of their narrow escape from the flames, “We didn’t even have time to get Esme her shoes,” said Jack, in his waning English accent. “However, the kind Red Cross workers didn’t stop until they found her some warm knit slipper shoes.”
Over his very first bowl of Fruit Loops cereal, Jack speaks for the both of them, as Esme often reaches for his hand. Esme has suffered from Alzheimer’s for three years, while Jack has been her devoted caregiver. “I expected the shelter to be nothing but a noisy rabble. But the people running the place have it down to a machine, from my view. Her health is fragile and keeping her well is most important. It’s been good here.”
The Lilac Fire brought Esme full circle back into the fold of the Red Cross. While volunteering in her homeland of England during the early 1940s, she worked in British Red Cross hospice shelters for people dying of Tuberculosis. Jack was a propeller pilot in the British Air Force, who went on to fly fighter jets during the Korean conflict. They met in Caracas, Venezuela. Esme worked for the British government, recruiting students to enroll in British universities and Jack was visiting to scuba dive.
“Our first date was to the beach. She showed up in a neck-to-toe black wool demure swimming costume that was typically British. Our second date was a shopping trip to bring her up to the cultural times,” laughed Jack. After sharing international adventures, the Griffiths settled in Southern California and ran a macadamia nut import-export business.
Esme and Jack are representative of hundreds of evacuees cared for in San Diego County Red Cross shelters during the Southern California Wildfires. Evacuated Thursday night from their hilltop Bonsall home, they joined others at the Oceanside High School location and later moved to the Palomar College shelter. During the event, volunteers have provided care and comfort to clients ranging in age from only a few months to Esme at 90-plus years old.
“The treatment could not have been more considerate or better,” offered Jack, as Esme again reached for his hand and smiled radiantly. “Whether we still have a home or not, I just don’t know. However, the Red Cross exceeded any expectation I had of what being a refugee from this terrible fire would be.”