PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. – Every American Red Cross disaster response is a transformative experience. Always different and yet very much the same.
Pat Rinehart has been a disaster volunteer for 14 years. The manager of the Red Cross shelter at Surfside Middle School in Panama City Beach, she is reflective as she watches fellow volunteers head for home after their two-week deployments in the hurricane-ravaged Florida panhandle.
“We come together as strangers, but we always depart as family, bonded by service to our shelter residents,” she says.
A paramedic from Kokomo, Ind., Rinehart is clear in her belief that she is, “Nothing without my wonderful, supportive staff who show their hearts through their work.
“Shelter workers welcome arrivals who are driven from their homes by the disaster – frightened that family members may have died, that they will lose all of their possessions and uncertain about their future. We listen to their stories, give them food, a place to sleep and compassion.
“My goal is to help them smile again,” Rinehart says. She particularly recalls an African-American man who came to a shelter after a storm, all alone and depressed.
“I noticed that when we walked together, he would trail behind me. We talked at length and when we were done, I gave him a big hug. He looked at me and said, ‘I am 86 years old and have never been given a hug by a white person before. Thank you’.” He then gave her a big smile.
A big smile goes a long way in making all the hard work of disaster response – the long hours of hard work, a few tears and lots of hugs and laughter – worthwhile and memorable. As she watches several of her fellow volunteers head for home, she tells them, “I never say goodbye, I only say ‘until the next time’.”
Rinehart is one of more than 1,800 Red Cross disaster responders – about 94 percent volunteers – who have been involved in hurricane relief efforts across six states. If you would like to become a trained disaster responder, contact your local Red Cross chapter or visit redcross.org.