When carpal tunnel syndrome spelled the end of Berteenia Thomas’s career as a county caseworker, she translated what could have been an early retirement into a new chapter in her life of helping others.
Just before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Berteenia became a volunteer with the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, picking client casework as just the place for her. Since then, the Berkeley resident has deployed on more than 10 national disaster assignments. She’s been among the thousands of volunteers filling out the Red Cross disaster crews providing assistance in the wake of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma as well as tornados in Alabama and floods in North Dakota.
Most recently, Berteenia packed up her suitcase and headed to New York City in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. In November, December, January, and March.
And on each two-week stint, Berteenia said, she met people whom she knows she was meant to help.
One was a suddenly homeless Muslim family with five children, including an infant. When she met them in the devastated community of Far Rockaway, Berteenia said, they were desperate to find transportation into Manhattan, where they had been assured of room at a hotel. They had been trying to arrange a trip to their promised shelter for a couple of days, without luck.
“I kind of took them under my wing,” Berteenia said, adding that she called the Red Cross headquarters and clearly explained the situation. Funds were put onto a client assistance card and the next day, a shuttle bus arrived to carry the grateful family into the city.
On a later deployment in New York City, Berteenia took a call from the same family as they sought information and advice about how to deal with their baby, suddenly sick.
She was dispatched to their hotel to provide them with paperwork to cover the related medical expenses.
Months later, she still stays in touch with them as they continue their post-disaster recovery.
Altogether, Berteenia estimated she directly helped 30 to 40 people in the New York area.
There was another family that had been told they had lost one of their own to drowning, who was pronounced dead and placed in a body bag. But within minutes, Berteenia
said, the man began coughing and sputtering, still alive.
She said she helped the family that was so exhausted and overwhelmed that they sat and cried for about 45 minutes straight. Through a series of calls and the exercise of much determination, Berteenia found them inexpensive airline tickets so they could join other relatives in Texas.
“Each time I went out (to New York City), there was at least one person who had been turned down, or had fallen through the cracks,” she recalled. “And I was able to get them some resources.”
Berteenia, who grew up in Oakland, said she is well aware of the precarious nature of living in Earthquake Country.
“Life is a journey,” she said. “You never know what the next turn is going to bring.”
But if you’re a client looking for aid after a cataclysmic event and you are lucky enough to encounter Berteenia, chances are good that her “next turn” is bringing you needed help. And while she may be taking a break for now, but she says she’ll be rested and ready around mid-June to deploy again if the need arises.