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Students Join Red Cross Volunteers During Ice Storm Response

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West Chester University students Hannah Caplan and Zeke Robinson fold blankets to help pack up the Red Cross shelter opened at their school. photo: Alex Greenblatt (American Red Cross)

I just want to provide some comfort to them.

After a massive ice storm hit the Philadelphia region, knocking down trees and power lines and taking out power to around a half million customers, the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania jumped to respond. In the hardest hit Chester county, a so-called “mega shelter” was opened by the Governor in partnership with the Department of Public Welfare and American Red Cross at West Chester University. The shelter was ready and equipped to handle 1300+ residents looking to escape the cold.

The Governor made the announcement late Wednesday, February 4th and within an hour, students of West Chester University were showing up in droves to help Red Cross volunteers set up cots, blankets, pillows and other items necessary to open the doors. When social media sources informed students of the WCU’s plans, students Zeke Robinson, from Baltimore and Hannah Caplan, from Wyndmoor, saw an opportunity to help. They couldn’t make it to the gym Wednesday evening, but arrived Thursday after hearing classes were canceled and became a staple at the shelter.

Hannah was the first to arrive at the shelter and, soon after, she contacted boyfriend Zeke and asked him to come and help. He explained that he had to support Hannah, but will tell you the time spent was rewarding. Over the coming days, as power companies worked feverishly to restore service, Hannah and Zeke worked 90 combined hours at the shelter in various capacities.

There was a lot for them to do. The West Chester University shelter serviced nearly 400 people. Nearly two hundred people stayed overnight Thursday. Zeke proved particularly skilled with older visitors and was always available to push a wheelchair or lend an arm to help them move around the shelter. He also spent time entertaining two middle schoolers, who arrived with their family after their home lost power. “Playing with Zachary and Joshua was the most fun. . .talking to them and talking to the family,” he said.

Hannah greeted people at the registration desk and gave them each a personal tour so they would know where to find blankets, food, shower and restrooms. She also helped students who wandered in and were confused about class cancellations, recruiting several to help out for as long as they could. In addition, she provided complimentary SAT tutoring to Taylor, older sister of Zach and Josh. She spent a lot of time talking to residents saying she was moved by “hearing all the stories and listening to what people are going through.” She said, “Everybody has something to share.”

Both Hannah and Zeke were energized by their experience as shelter volunteers. After two days, they were fixtures for shelter guests. Hannah had her own walkie-talkie to communicate with shelter service personnel. They answered endless questions, provided ready smiles, and offered comfort during a difficult ordeal. “Everybody knows us here,” said Zeke. “I just want to provide some comfort to them,” said Hannah.