Written by Kim Mailes, American Red Cross
She silently counted the children in her head. This one’s number three, and there are more?
“Ma’am, how many are in your family?”
“Six kids, two adults,” the lady responded over the phone. “Eight, total. And we were all home the night of the fire.”
Becky Thompson took a deep breath and continued entering data, trying to get her head around the horrific mental image of this big family fleeing their burning home on a freezing January night.
No rookie, Becky has been an American Red Cross Disaster Action Team member (DAT) for twelve years, and has assisted many families affected by home fires. But this particular case was unusual—so many young children. And it just felt different, having to work a case over the phone instead of in-person because of the pandemic.
Home fires constitute 90% of Red Cross disaster responses each year. Few things are more terrifying to a family than fleeing a fire, and then having to put their lives back together and move forward. Red Cross volunteers connect with clients as soon as possible after a fire, providing emotional support and funds to meet immediate needs. In the past, the money has been provided via a pre-loaded debit card.
But because of the pandemic, new methods are being used to put recovery money into clients’ hands as quickly as possible. This was Becky’s first time trying to make the new system work, and she was a little nervous.
First, she asked if the client had a bank account, if she had a smartphone, and if she knew how to send and receive texts. Then, she walked her through the steps to receive the funds.
Becky says having Darwin Boston back her up was a big help. Darwin is the Disaster Program Manager for Southern Missouri, and he remotely monitored the call and shared Becky’s computer screen. This allowed her to focus completely on the client and to provide emotional support during the process.
The moment the money hit the client’s smartphone sticks out in Becky’s mind.
“We were going through the prompts, trying to get everything just right, and then she shouted, ‘I’ve got the money!’” Darwin and I were celebrating, the client’s tears turned into shouts of joy, and we all whooped and hollered together over the phone. It was great.”
But something still didn’t feel quite right the next day. Becky missed the personal interaction that usually accompanies a DAT response.
In the past, a care kit containing coloring books and other items has been provided for children. To Becky, the best part of the comfort kit is a Mickey Mouse plush toy. So, after thinking about it a couple of days, she used her own funds and mailed the care packages, and included a children’s book that helps kids understand their feelings after losing their home in a fire.
Becky hopes we soon return to the days of putting a pre-loaded debit card right into a client’s hand and giving them a hug. But in the meantime, she finds satisfaction doing the next best thing.
“I’ve missed the personal touch so much, but it was better this time. Talking a mother with six kids through the virtual process of receiving funds showed me the Red Cross can still make a connection, even if we never meet face-to-face.”