When 16-year-old high school student Dustin Shafer from Toms River, N.J., walked into a local Red Cross shelter, he was so touched by what he saw that he stayed.
Hundreds of people from the Jersey shore sought refuge at the shelter after Hurricane Sandy’s damaging winds, floods and power outages forced them to leave their homes. Many had been subject to mandatory evacuations, which left them little time to grab belongings. Some only had the clothes on their backs.
After signing up and getting his “spontaneous volunteer” badge, Shafer soon put his IT and Boy Scout skills to work. His first assignment was to sort out the shelter IT, after he admitted that one of his main interests was computers. He started by putting information into the Red Cross Safe and Well database.
Shafer set up sign-in and sign-out forms, and as a result, the shelter reception workers had records of all the people coming though the shelter on paper and on a spreadsheet. He was instrumental in helping Verizon set up a wireless network so laptops could be made available to shelter residents to help them sort out problems and contact their families.
The most satisfying aspect of his experience has been his role in tracing missing people and reuniting families.
“I won’t forget their reactions when you see them cry with relief—but it’s a happy cry, and it’s just that feeling that you know you did something good for someone,” Shafer said.
A worker at another shelter told him and Red Cross shelter worker Kimberly Sivon about a woman who was desperately trying to trace her missing son. The family and police were becoming increasingly worried for his safety. Shafer and Sivon compiled a contact list of every shelter and hospital in the area and then spent many hours on the phone trying to find him. Eventually their persistence paid off, and the man was traced and reunited with his family.
Shafer said he cried like a baby because it was one of the biggest things he had ever done for someone else.
“Just seeing them so happy, it made me feel part of the family because we had worked so hard to find him. I was happy he was safe,” he said.
Shafer has become so committed to helping out that he spent his 17th birthday working in the shelter. He now hopes to join the Red Cross and become a full-fledged volunteer.
“I want to become involved because I like what they do and how they do it. It has inspired me—seeing when people here check out, and being told how happy everyone here has made them feel and seeing how much we’ve been able to help in such a short time. The Red Cross really does leave an impact on people in the community and everywhere; not just our community, but nationally and globally.”
If you’re interested in volunteering for the Red Cross in your community, visit www.redcross.org/support/volunteer.