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Families Relying on Red Cross for the Basics After Irene

Irene has exited the East Coast, but the effects of this devastating storm linger, as thousands spent Sunday night in American Red Cross shelters up and down the eastern seaboard.

But as the storm moved on, others were able to return to their homes.

Blanca Garcia and Juventino Chavez were all smiles Sunday morning as they and their five children got ready to leave an American Red Cross shelter in Wilson, N.C. Outside, the day-long lashing winds and driving rain of Hurricane Irene on Saturday had given way to a crystal clear Carolina morning. Blankets and pillows, the children's favorite stuffed animals, a Cinderella rolling suitcase and a bright carry-all with extra clothes and toiletries sat ready for departure.

But first there was the leave-taking.

Five-year-old Margarita had to give her favorite Red Cross volunteer, Ray Oxendine, 74, a farewell supply of hugs and grins. In return, Oxendine, a tall Lumbee Indian from Maxton,N.C., sang her the Donut Song that he used to entertain kindergartners in his years as an elementary school principal. "Isn't she special?" he said with the grandfather-like pleasure of a man who loves kids.

Meanwhile, Red Cross volunteer shelter manager Brenda Pender was sharing hugs with Blanca and Juventino. "They've only been here two nights, but they've been so great. Such great help," she said. Among the first to arrive as the shelter was opening at Raleigh Road Baptist Church, the two pitched right in to make things comfortable for the more than 150 people who would eventually take refuge there. Juventino helped set up tables and cots; Blanca headed straight for the kitchen to lend a hand.

Bianca and Juventino have never had to seek help from the Red Cross before, but they are long-time, enthusiastic donors to Red Cross blood drives. "We are glad to be able to help other people," Juventino said. "We appreciate it that the Red Cross was here for us too."

For some, the trip back home was devastating, forcing them to come back to the Red Cross shelter."We checked out of the shelter last night, but we had to come back," Maria Pennell said Sunday, tears streaming down her cheeks as she hugged shelter manager Brenda Pender. "There's a tree on our house. We can't get in at all. I don't know what we're going to do."

As Hurricane Irene took aim at North Carolina Friday, Pennell brought her six children — ranging in age from six to 16 — to the Red Cross in Wilson. Her brother, Orlando Romero, convinced her it was better to be safe than sorry.

Sunday morning, Orlando reflected on the dramatic turn in his family's situation Saturday. "We were so happy to be back home," he said. "I wasn't surprised to see the tree down, but I didn't realize what it had done. I expected to be helping my neighbors clean up and then I saw the tree was on the house. The roof is completely collapsed. Everything inside is soaking wet. They won't let us get anything out -- they say it's not safe."

"I can't even get into my bedroom. I can't get my husband's picture," Maria said, her voice catching.

"You always think something like this happens to someone else, not to you," said Orlando, who volunteered with the Red Cross to help disaster victims after Hurricane Isabel struck North Carolina in 2003. "It's hard to believe that in just a minute you don't have a place to stay. We had to turn around and come back to the shelter. We're so grateful to the Red Cross and the church for this."

Regional shelter supervisor Carlos Soto assured Maria that the Red Cross will have a place for the family until they can locate more long-term accommodations. In the meantime, they will have shelter, food and emotional support from a compassionate Red Cross staff.

"I want to thank you for everything," Orlando told Brenda. "You never know how fast you can go from a volunteer to a victim."

As people are able to get back into their homes after the storm, the Red Cross has special steps they should follow to remain safe. Our website also has information on how to keep all members of your household as comfortable as possible if you have lost power.

If someone would like to help, they can make a donation to American Red Cross Disaster Relief by visiting, calling 1-800-RED CROSS, texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. They can also send contributions to their local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.

Returning home safely The Red Cross has special steps they should follow to remain safe. Our website also has information on how to keep all members of your household as comfortable as possible if you have lost power.