4 minute readDisaster, Volunteers
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Providing Shelter & Comfort: Three Volunteer Stories from Florence

The American Red Cross is working around the clock to provide shelter and comfort for the residents of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina who have been impacted by Florence. None of our efforts would be possible without the help of our generous donors and our selfless volunteers. Since the storm first made landfall on Friday, September 14, we have mobilized more than 2,000 disaster workers from all over the country who have dropped everything to help those in need. Below we’ve highlighted three of these dedicated volunteers who are working in Columbia, South Carolina, to provide comfort, care, emotional support and much needed supplies for evacuees.

Comfort and Care

Shelter volunteers Paul "Paco" Garcia and Emma Tucker-Krug work to organize a meal table at a shelter in Columbia, South Carolina.

The lunch rush is over and Paco Garcia, an American Red Cross volunteer from Butler, Pennsylvania, sits in the empty cafeteria thinking about how he has been able to help those staying at the evacuation center at Ridge View High School. He has set up cots with sleeping pads and blankets, served food, and answered questions — lots of questions.

But most of all he has been listening, he said, “It’s a very stressful situation for them. There are people who will go home and find they have a lot less than when they left to come here.”

Pausing for a moment, he continued, “Listening – some think it’s a waste of time, but it’s not because you’re showing you care, and for them, at a time like this, that is very important for them to know that somebody cares.”

Paco said his best asset is his infectious smile and a voice filled with caring that can quickly build bridges of friendship with those who need help. “They want to be home but they can’t. They’re here but they don’t know their surroundings,” he said. “They don’t know what awaits them, and they need people to talk to because they’ve never been down this road before.”

He said showing people arriving at the center that there are those who care about them goes a long way to make them feel better. “It may be a tense situation but if you have a smile in your voice and on your face, it helps bridge the gap,” he said. “I try to be welcoming and giving, but not a giver of false hope.”

Paco said he’s always wanted to be able to help people in need, but his work kept him from doing that. Now that he is retired, he jumped at the opportunity to take the road he had not yet taken.

While this is Paco’s first deployment, he doesn’t plan on it being his last. “I’ll be back. There will be another need and I want to be there to help,” he said before turning his attention to an approaching resident with a question.

Emotional Support

Lydia Willingham speaking to a fellow Red Cross volunteer at a shelter in Columbia, South Carolina.

For nearly four decades, Lydia Willingham has been a Red Cross volunteer going where she can help people affected by disasters and use her skills as a mental health counselor. In recent days, she has been at the Ridge View High School in Columbia hosting a Red Cross evacuation center for those fleeing the coastal areas of South Carolina in the face of Hurricane Florence.

As a mental health counselor, she knows that in times of disaster less talking and more listening is better. “Sometimes the most comforting thing is to listen to their stories about where they came from and what they want to do. We’re listening to provide comfort.” she said.

Lydia continued, letting people talk about what’s happening back home helps lower their stress level. Often, knowing the reality of the situation is helpful. “The unknown is the real stress.”

She said Red Cross volunteers are doing what they can to bring some measure of comfort and care to those waiting to find out if their homes will be there when they return. “If they have that Red Cross blanket to hold onto, if the kids have games, it tells them that things really will be OK,” she said.

Lydia, who lives in Columbia, joined the Red Cross in 1979 because when a hurricane struck the Myrtle Beach area where she was living, Red Cross volunteers came to the area to help out.

“I decided to give back to those who helped us,” she said. “During tough times you want to make people feel better.”

Much Needed Supplies

Clare standing in an empty warehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.

When American Red Cross volunteer Clare Rybczynski walked into the empty warehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, she looked at the vast emptiness but knew that would change soon with her help.

As Hurricane Florence started its damage, Clare knew that soon there would be pallets of bottled water, clean-up kits stacked to the rafters and a host of other needed items in neat orderly rows, ready to be loaded onto trucks and taken where they will be needed for Red Cross disaster relief efforts.

“My job here is to get what’s needed to where it’s needed,” said Clare, from the Central New Jersey Region. This is her fourteenth Red Cross deployment and while she’s done other assignments, being part of a warehouse crew is her favorite.

“You get to do what you like to do. I really found my niche, being in the back room making sure everything gets out like it should,” she said.

She also said she’s thankful for the backing from her husband, Phil, for her deployments, adding, “I couldn’t do it without support from him.”

When she’s not helping out with a disaster response, she’s at home where she’s also helping those in need as a Disaster Action Team member responding to home fires and working with the Service to the Armed Forces team.

“People call and ask if I can do it and I get to yes real fast,” Clare said with a smile. “It’s my rush. I really feel the Red Cross makes me a better person.”

Become a Volunteer

Learn more about volunteer opportunities at the Red Cross at redcross.org/volunteer.