When asked to describe Red Cross volunteers, Velma Cole sums them up in one word: Heroes.
She first connected with the organization on August 29, 2013, a seemingly ordinary day for Velma and her four children: one-year-old twins, and sons, ages three and 13. As the family began their day, no one could image how drastically their lives were about to change.
Velma’s three-year-old was running a fever. She had just settled him with a bottle when she thought she smelled smoke. Velma raced toward the door to find her hallway transformed into a raging furnace, filled with choking smoke.
Velma screamed “Fire!” and raced her children toward the back of the apartment where she pushed out the air conditioner to gain full access to the window.
Outside, a crowd gathered as smoke and flames erupted from the building. Velma dangled her children down to an NYPD officer who heard her cries for help. Only after the children were safe did she escape the blaze that was rapidly consuming the building. From the sidewalk, they watched in horror and disbelief as friends remained trapped inside the burning building.
“We’re like family in this building,” she said. “We care about each other. I knew them from when I was a child.”
Thankfully, all the families were eventually rescued from the three-story building but sadly, all the apartments were destroyed.
“We escaped from the fire with only the clothes we were wearing; some of us didn’t even have shoes,” Velma recalled. “I had nothing for the babies. Here we were, left standing on the sidewalk.”
Frightened, Velma and her neighbors did not know where they were going to go next. “Then you guys came,” Velma said, “like a genie out of a bottle.”
Red Cross volunteers navigated her and her neighbors through the early hours of the crisis. “They reassured us that we would be cared for,” Velma said.
The Red Cross provided emergency housing to all the families from the building in need. “The Red Cross helped us get situated for the night,” Velma said. “They made sure we had food and arranged to meet us the following morning.”
“When I arrived at Red Cross headquarters, packages were waiting for us; mine included Pampers,” Velma recalled. “My caseworker, Lilliam, was really sweet. I was a wreck; I kept crying and crying.”
Velma also received emergency funds from the Red Cross, with which she was able to buy new clothes, sneakers, food and a couple of toys to comfort the children. Velma said she was grateful to the Red Cross volunteers who went out of their way to soothe them.
A year later, Velma returned to the Red Cross headquarters to express her gratitude. “You guys are amazing! I had to reach out to share that I am rebuilding my life.”
Velma and her children are now living in a new apartment in Brooklyn. Velma describes it as nice and peaceful.
“I think back to all that the Red Cross has done for me, and is still helping me with, a year after the fire,” she said. “Without the Red Cross, I don’t know where I would be today.’”
Velma’s experience with the Red Cross has inspired her to volunteer. “The Red Cross means a lot to me. You guys are amazing! I want to repay, in some way, all that you have done for me.”
Once Velma finishes her volunteer training, she will be working alongside the same volunteers who helped her and her family, bringing a unique perspective to her volunteerism. “I would like to touch someone’s life the way you guys helped me. You are my heroes.”