By Amy De La Fuente and Merrell Waring, American Red Cross volunteers
Community Members and Red Cross Volunteers Come Together to Support Those Affected by Tustin Apartment Fire
On February 12, 2020, the American Red Cross responded to a fire at Tustin’s Chatham Village apartments. This fire spread quickly and affected an entire building within the complex, displacing over 80 people. Red Cross disaster workers handed out blankets on-scene and soon opened a Care and Reception Center, which transitioned into an overnight shelter at the Tustin Area Senior Center.
Shelter services included a safe and clean place to stay, food, hydration, comfort kits with personal hygiene items, emotional support and health services. Domestic pets were cared for at a co-located pet shelter on the same premises through partnership with Orange County Animal Care Services. Shelter residents were grateful to keep their pets nearby, including Ricardo Torres, who stayed at the shelter along with his dog, Toby, who had alerted him to the fire that morning.
The shelter was open from February 12-19 to care for the immediate needs of those affected. In total, the Red Cross provided 108 overnight shelter stays, more than 1,700 meals and snacks, nearly 100 comfort kits and over 280 individual care contacts.
Several community partners helped in this response, including the City of Tustin, Family Solutions Collaborative, Kaarina’s Kloset, the Consulate of Mexico, OC Animal Care, OC Community Resources, the Orange County Fire Authority, the Orange County Rescue Mission, Orange County Health Care Agency’s Behavioral Health, Orange County Transportation Authority, Orange County Housing Authority, the Salvation Army, Tustin Unified School District and Waymakers. Congresswoman Katie Porter and her staff made welcome visits to the shelter to help those affected navigate federal services.
Throughout this response, we have seen compassion from volunteers and community organizations, working together during times of crises to help those who need it most.
Disaster Mental Health Volunteers Provide a Shoulder to Lean On
Retired school psychologist Hillary Bryan is one of many Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteers who aided frightened and distressed Tustin apartment fire survivors who found their way to the Red Cross shelter last Wednesday.
Across the country, Red Cross Disaster Mental Health workers are trained and fully licensed mental health professionals giving their time to disaster survivors to help them cope with anxiety and loss.
“When I retired, I wanted to keep doing the part of my job I loved the most, helping people get through the hardest of times with the most dignity and emotional support,” said Hillary. "My first deployment was the Las Vegas shootings, and from there, it has always been incredibly rewarding for me.”
More than 90% of the Red Cross workforce is volunteers, which includes Hillary and all our wonderful mental health volunteers.
“From Mild to Wild” Tacos Donated to Tustin Shelter
On February 12, local resident Wendy Reyes awoke in the early morning to the sound of sirens and the smell of burning, coming from the nearby Tustin Chatham Village Apartments.
Just a few days later, on Valentine’s Day, survivors of the Tustin Chatham Apartment fire were treated to gourmet tacos, rice, chips and salsa, courtesy of Wendy’s catering company, Taquizas Jimenez. Wendy had reached out to the Red Cross to organize a much-appreciated donation of food to bring shelter residents the taste of a meal cooked with extra love. Shelter resident Manuel said, “When the food was brought in, the good smell filled the air and gave us something to get excited about.”
Wendy describes her actions as being her “duty as a human being to help whoever…it is important that we can give those that lost everything genuine love, dignity and respect.” Wendy went on to say how important it is that she instills good values to her kids to let them know that it is good to “help others out of the kindness of [your] heart.”
Catching back up with shelter resident Manuel as he received an additional serving of tacos, he said, “The tacos are so good! I really appreciate it…everyone here has been so kind.” Before leaving the shelter, Wendy said that she took the time to look at the situation and thought, “If we as a community work hard, together we can do great things.”
Little Shop of Magic
For some people Valentine's Day means making a dash to the store for cards or flowers. For others, there was a different reason to dash to the store this Valentine's Day. Valentine's Day 2020 saw many locals donating to the survivors of Tustin's Chatham Village apartment fire. At the Red Cross shelter for these survivors, items donated ranged from boxes of toothpaste, to shoes, to workwear that survivors needed for work the next day. With the help of Red Cross volunteers, items were quickly sorted, tagged and displayed in a mini store where the those affected by the fire would be welcomed to “shop” for items.
With items arriving faster than she could sort, Red Cross volunteer Wendy was all smiles as she folded and organized the clothes by gender, size and category. Within a matter of hours, pants were on hangers, the shoes were displayed, sweaters were neatly stacked and the toys were set up to play. Once the store was ready, those at the shelter were greeted at the store entrance with a smile, handed a reusable bag and were told to grab as much as they wanted. Just like a regular shopping day, the shelter children quickly ran to the toy section while their mothers started collecting necessities. To many, the store represented a return to normalcy, with one shelter resident joking that "it was like being in a Ross, except this is better because everything here is free!"
At the “store" an elderly couple held hands as they walked in and browsed through the tables, eventually finding several outfits and even reminding themselves to grab pajamas from the sleepwear section. With Red Cross volunteers filling the supply of items as fast as they could, the mini store came together from the kindness of strangers and spread a magical kindness to people that needed it the most.
While restocking the toy section, Wendy played with a child who was hesitant to grab a second toy. Wendy said, “You can have that too!” causing the little girl to smile and say, “Wow, I am having so much fun!”
Valentine's Day 2020 was the celebration of love, and the people of Orange County went out of their way to make sure the shelter residents did not feel forgotten on this special day.
From the CEO With Love
On February 12, many Red Cross volunteers answered the call after the devastating apartment fire in Tustin. Within a span of just two hours, these volunteers would deploy, assist, transport and help set up a Care and Reception Center for the survivors of the fire. Day in and day out, Red Cross volunteers stood strong, doing everything they could to help the survivors recover from the disaster.
Red Cross volunteers activated their training and worked tirelessly to set up a shelter, set up feeding, maintain logistics and help the survivors get to the next step in their recovery. With volunteers making up 90% of the Red Cross workforce, it is no wonder that local Red Cross leaders found their way to the shelter to personally thank these volunteers.
Two days after the shelter's opening, Linda Voss, Regional CEO of the American Red Cross Desert to the Sea Region, visted the shelter to shake the hands of dedicated volunteers, thank them for their hard work and voice her appreciation to all the volunteers that continued to make a difference in the lives of the survivors. One Red Cross volunteer said that he was not surprised that Linda was there because she is a good leader.
You might ask, "What makes a good leader?" The answer is that it is someone that creates more leaders, not followers. Linda has led her region as a family and her family not only respects her, but works hard to show her just how far kindness can spread.
During her Valentine's Day vist, Linda indeed helped to spread love, kindness and appreciation for all the work done by Red Cross volunteers to help survivors.
This response was made possible thanks to the generous donations of time and money from Red Cross volunteers, community members, partner organizations and more. If you would like to support Red Cross disaster relief efforts with a financial donation or to learn more about becoming a volunteer, visit redcross.org/dts.