By Alli Trask, Executive Director Asheville-Mountain Area Chapter of the American Red Cross
Here’s my update – Oct. 15, 2017. This will not be beautiful. I am filthy and exhausted, with few brain cells functioning and no muscles at all! But I could not be happier.
I have an amazing team. There are 4 of us. Rafael, born and raised here, joined the Army at 25 and retires in 6 years. He sings in a salsa band. Hector, born and raised here, was a rescue diver (among many other things), and now lives in D.C., not too far from where Rafael lives; they had to come all the way to Puerto Rico to meet. Hector has actually seen Rafael’s band in a club they both frequent. And Eric joined us today. He is with the Peace Corps group we brought in, and did his service in the Dominican Republic 20 years ago. He started an IT company after, sold it 5 years ago, and retired. Starting tomorrow, he will be doing our Survey 1-2-3. I’m trying to convince them all to move to the Asheville-Mountain Area.
Yesterday, we managed to get a car assigned to us. Rafael and Hector know the whole island, so lack of gps is not a problem. Today, I negotiated a laptop, cell phone, satellite phone, and hot spot. One should never underestimate the power of relationships. And I don’t know that any relationships are more worthwhile than those with our volunteers. They are the very best of all of us. It cannot be said enough. What they are going through to be here and deliver our mission requires a level of dedication, compassion, and tenacity I can’t even put into words.
We go out into the 3 most affected zones, where we’ve had trouble getting and there is much opportunity to connect with and help residents. We spend the morning giving out bulk goods (bottled water, tarps, fruit/veg/staples boxes, granola bars, hand sanitizer, sandwich crackers, and whatever else gets thrown on the truck any given day. This is pretty much my new favorite thing: it’s the simplest, most direct, and aside from health and mental health services, most important thing we can do for them. Today, while we were unloading the truck, many of the people there to receive help volunteered. We had two lines, sending boxes and supplies down both, one person to another, and two ladies
started a competition. So Hector and I (safely) raced to get our side of the pallets out first. I’m proud to have won every time except the last. To be fair, Hector had the knife and had to cut the wrap off the pallets each time, so I sort of cheated. It was so much more exciting and fun than it should have been; it was one more small way to laugh and come together, cheering each other on, even while surrounded by trees stripped bare and ripped from the ground, lives and homes ravaged, their roofs and second stories severely damaged or missing altogether. There is no power or water in these areas, and news travels quickly by word of mouth where we are each day. Everyone who wasn’t helping unload and organize stood patiently in line, talking with neighbors and family, sometimes crying but mostly laughing. I love Puerto Ricans. They are, simply, amazing. As they went through, they were constantly checking on those around them, volunteering to step out of line and help others carry their things to cars or offering rides to those who had walked.
While we do that, we also work our way through the line registering for Safe and Well, documenting general services requests, emergency welfare inquiries, and mental health and health services requests. One woman was visibly weak and upset and several ladies helped her over to me to explain her situation. Hector was able to get her information and it turns out she had been out of her medications for several days. She needed insulin, mental health medications, and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She was the first of 6 emergent cases we were able to document and deliver to health services when we returned to HQ. They are sending a team out tomorrow.
We typically finish distribution/collection by 1 p.m. The rest of the afternoon we devote entirely to reunification. For emergency and general inquiries, I am able to open cases and respond to and close most of them while we’re out, then enter them into the system when I return to HQ or the shelter in the evening. This saves the Reunification team at HQ a lot of work and gets people the help they need much, much faster. I can’t tell you how happy this makes us.
I feel super lucky to be here, but also to be here with the particular experience and skill set I bring. I never knew that all that casework, Disaster Action Team and Disaster Workforce Engagement Team experience with the Red Cross, and all the things I learned from the shelter all those years would ever come together and be much more than a patchwork quilt of random experience. But Hector and Rafael, both devoted to helping their friends and families here (and EVERYONE is friends/family here) bring passion, knowledge and experience of the island, culture, and language, and Eric is passionate about service and covering our team’s Survey requirement. Combined with my experience and knowledge of the Red Cross, we are able to do so much more than we otherwise would have been—together. And that is absolutely how things work here. It’s all about community.