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Volunteer finds strength through helping others

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One day while driving through a Houston neighborhood, Red Cross volunteer Stephanie Lawrence came across an elderly woman digging through a large pile of debris -- carpet, Sheetrock and a hodge-podge of household goods left in Hurricane Harvey’s wake. Lawrence and her fellow volunteers stopped to ask the woman how she was doing.

“She was a very small woman and she had a straw hat on, and she’s just picking through trash,” Lawrence said. “It turns out she was a retired teacher and this was her house. As we talked to her she would get emotional and get teary and then she would laugh and continue on. We asked her what she was doing and she said she was looking for photographs of her family, of her mom and dad. 

“I just saw so much strength in her.”

It was the type of strength the Lewiston woman would see time and time again during her two weeks in Texas -- a strength that energized and empowered Lawrence as well.

This was Lawrence’s first Red Cross deployment, having signed on with the organization two days after Harvey hit. A pediatric intensive care unit nurse of about 20 years, Lawrence stepped away from work four years ago after a long bout with depression. After going through a two-year program in Spokane, Lawrence said she’s well on her way to recovery. Experiences like those she encountered in Texas keep her headed in the right direction, she said.

“Going on this deployment was one of the tools that helps keep this depression from creeping back in,” she said. “When you work in those kinds of situations there’s that special bond that’s formed that you just don’t see when you work in an office or a situation like that. For me it was a chance to give back in some way and help others.”

Lawrence was deployed to the Beaumont and Houston areas, where she served as a Red Cross disaster health services volunteer, spending much of her time traveling through some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, checking on people and helping however she could. 

“We would see people who had the most basic survival needs like food and water, and we would call in an emergency response vehicle,” she said. “Or maybe we were checking on an elderly couple down the street that nobody had heard from. There were people who had maybe lost their meds or had run out of their meds so we worked with pharmacies, saying ‘these medications are life and death to this person, can you get them a refill?’”

One day while out with a condolence team, Lawrence met a man who had lost his mother after the nursing home she was staying in flooded. Lawrence did a health check on the man and his wife and discovered the woman’s blood sugar was way beyond safe levels. She quickly called an ambulance and got the woman the help she needed.

Lawrence said there are many stories like these, including a nurse she met who helped a man who suffered a heart attack while they were speaking. 

“We’re not only giving a message of hope, we’re saving lives as well,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

There were reminders everywhere of the storm’s devastation – like the story Lawrence heard of a woman who watched as her husband and his truck were swept away by floodwaters or the child’s little red wagon Lawrence saw sitting haphazardly in the street. But there were also glimmers of hope and strength amidst the crisis and chaos, she said. 

“Yes, it’s tragic and it just breaks your heart but there’s a beauty in it as well because you see these communities come together to help each other in whatever ways they could,” she said. “Everyone really looked out for each other. You didn’t see any exclusion because of race or whatever nationality they were. 

“I was amazed by everyone’s graciousness and love.”

As Lawrence continues on her own path to recovery, she said she looks forward to volunteering more with the American Red Cross and drawing strength from helping others through their struggles.

“It gives me purpose and meaning in my life,” she said. “It was really good for me.”

“I really feel like I was meant to do something to make our world a better place.”

Since July, the American Red Cross of Montana and Idaho has deployed more than 75 volunteers and staff to provide wildfire relief in Montana and California and help those impacted by hurricanes in places like Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If you are interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer visit www.redcross.org or call 800-272-6668.