I had no clue about the magnitude of what I signed up for when I volunteered to deploy to Guam. I made this life-enhancing decision roughly four months after I became an American Red Cross volunteer with the Greater Arkansas Chapter.
Days after returning from a tiring three weeks in Rwanda for work, I attended a Red Cross all-hands meeting virtually from the comfort of my bedroom. When the need in Guam was mentioned, I immediately leaped out of bed and emailed to sign up.
Typhoon Mawar trampled the tiny Pacific Island on May 24, 2023. Its 140 mph winds left destruction not seen there in two decades. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived on the Fourth of July, but I knew I was up for the challenge.
Although this was my first deployment with the Red Cross, it was not my first time traveling away from home for disaster relief. Over the past nine years, I have deployed in Arkansas and Louisiana with faith-based organizations. I also have deployed locally and to Florida with Bear Boots on the Ground, a disaster relief group at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
During those deployments, I dug in to do the hands-on dirty work, outside and inside. After hurricanes and tornadoes, I lugged limbs, dragged debris, and distributed supplies in stifling heat and humidity. Following floods, I trudged through mud and murky water to strip sheetrock and box belongings in homes that reeked of mold and mildew.
I knew what it felt like to be physically exhausted from manual labor on the mainland, but I had no idea about the mental drain of disaster relief work in this U.S. territory. This time I didn’t work outside in the elements or inside without electricity. Instead, I sat in front of a laptop with a smartphone in an air-conditioned elementary school as a Shelter Resident Transition (SRT) team member.
SRT case workers help clients develop a plan to secure housing so they can exit the shelter and begin rebuilding their lives. We also connect them with resources to address other needs, such as transportation, childcare and healthcare. I had limited experience completing such tasks and didn't always feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of a workday. But when I returned home and reflected on my deployment, I realized that I achieved more than I thought, all while embracing flexibility, fortitude and fun.
With flexibility, being willing to change or compromise on a moment's notice is an absolute must. On my first day in Guam, I discovered I would be there for about three weeks instead of two. While I waited to gain access to the SRT online system, I organized supplies to make it faster and easier for a client to move out of the shelter. I then adapted to SRT tasks that got revised almost daily. Soon, I moved to the afternoon/evening shift despite being an early riser. And I transported colleagues who didn't drive, although I wouldn't say I like driving. Overall, I did my best to do whatever needed to be done.
Fortitude refers to the strength of mind and character to courageously tackle challenges. To guide my interactions with colleagues and clients, I constantly reminded myself of our fundamental principles of humanity and impartiality. Those words reinforced my commitment to the Red Cross and to disaster relief.
Disaster relief cannot be all work and no play. I found a way to infuse fun at the shelter through art, music and dance. First, I commissioned drawings from a beautiful girl for nearly a week. She used my colored ink pens and yellow sticky notes to create masterpieces, which I framed when I returned home. Next, I requested songs from a fellow volunteer who sang while playing the ukulele. He truly boosted our moods on slow days. Finally, I learned some smooth dance moves from Chimorro event-based volunteers who were helping us at the shelters. The mother-daughter duo kept me grooving and grinning.
Although I didn't know the magnitude of what I had gotten myself into when I deployed to Guam, I will forever cherish all the memories – all while anxiously awaiting my next deployment.
90% of the Red Cross workforce are volunteers. Our work is possible because of people like Riva and like you. Discover the role that's right for you and join us today! Visit www.redcross.org/volunteertoday or call 1-800-REDCROSS