In a small office at the Red Cross building in Elkhart, Indiana, Benjamin Jeffery awaits a call from the Indiana Region headquarters alerting him help is needed. Ben, a man with a friendly smile and a big sense of humor, volunteers four days a week as the Disaster Action Team (DAT) coordinator. For almost five years, first in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and now in Elkhart, Ben has volunteered for the Red Cross, coordinating DAT volunteers, responding to fires, and even deploying to scenes of national disasters.
When asked why he volunteers so much of his time, Ben joked, “Every year my boss adds a zero to the end of my salary. Pretty soon I’ll be making six figures!” Then he cleared his throat and added seriously, “I do it for the satisfaction of helping people that have been in the same situation I was.”
Ben knows about the devastating loss of home fires firsthand. On February 8, 2001, Ben lost his wife and two young daughters in a fire. It’s a story still painful to tell, but he shares it with every client he assists. “I remember it like it was yesterday, but it also feels like a dream.”
It began as a typical morning. Ben was getting ready for work, drinking coffee with Angie, his wife. They laughed and joked. He remembers his two-year old daughter, Sara, snatching an oatmeal pie from his lunch and running off with it. He laughed, and opened the package for her, letting her have his treat. “She munched it down so fast,” he said, amused while recalling his last moments with his family.
Work was normal that morning, but Ben was concerned when Angie didn’t call at lunch. “Angie called every day. She would drive the office ladies nuts, calling right before the bell. She never missed a day,” Ben said. He used his foreman’s office to call her, and got a busy signal. It was the days of dial-up Internet so Ben assumed Angie was online and lost track of time. When he got a busy signal at the end of his lunch break too, Ben thought, “Okay. Now I’m getting worried.”
Thirty minutes after lunch, the office manager called Ben to his office where a police detective was waiting to give Ben the devastating news. There was a fire at Ben’s home, and his wife and his eleven-month old baby girl, Kaitlin, were confirmed dead. Ben started crying, but had hope Sara had escaped. “She was a little weasel, like me, and she was older, so I thought maybe she got out,” Ben said. The police officer drove Ben to Angie’s grandmother’s house and then to Angie’s mother’s. The three family members went to the scene together. They were immediately told Sara was also dead. “That’s when we just broke down,” Ben said.
Ben remembers the firefighter’s support that day. They formed a blockade around him to keep the aggressive media away. They helped him walk. They simply stood by his side. Now, more than ten years later, Ben has made that commitment to help others after fires.
As a disaster action team member, Ben is called to the scene to assist with basic emergency needs. First, he lets the families know he is there for them. “We take their information and listen to their story. We might give them temporary housing; funds for food, clothing; help with transportation,” Ben explains.
Going to the scene of a fire brings back vivid memories. Ben’s first volunteer experience was excruciating. “When the call came in, I jumped up and grabbed my vest and said, “let’s go!’” At the scene he was paralyzed and struggled not to break down. Ben said. “I did not expect it. The smells…the look…I just didn’t know.” Upon returning to the office, Ben went to the executive director. He said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” The director told him, “You have to take care of yourself emotionally, physically, and mentally first. If you can’t do that, you can’t take care of the family.” Many people would quit, but Ben said, “It was something I really wanted to do.”
Ben explains the cycle of grief as never ending. “I thought it just happened once, and it took a long time, but then you’re done. No. It just recycles through your entire life.”
Still, Ben is determined to continue to help. He said, “So many people around here don’t have family and friends they can rely on.” Ben felt the support of the Elkhart firefighters, his family, church family, and friends; and credits them for his recovery. He doesn’t want anyone to have to go through it alone.
Understandably, the victims of home fires are often at a complete loss. Ben says, “Once they know they have an immediate place to go, and money for food they begin to relax.” Then Ben shares his story. “I tell every client I work with ‘I know what you are going through.’ I tell them ‘You can recover. If I can do it, you can do it.’ That gives them hope.”