By: Jon Rehg
In the early afternoon of May 19, 2018, Nikki Smith was just finishing the Walk to End Lupus Now in Chesterfield when her phone rang. “It was my neighbors. They were frantic,” she remembers.
Smith, who was diagnosed with lupus a few years prior, had raised $2,000 for this walk and was feeling upbeat and positive. When her neighbors called, they told her the two-story duplex they shared in the historic Shaw Neighborhood in South St. Louis had caught fire.
Minutes seemed like hours as Smith made the drive from Chesterfield to her home in the city, her stomach tied in knots imagining what she would find. Turning onto her street she was confronted by fire trucks, hoses and firefighters still dousing her duplex with hundreds of gallons of water in the hopes of salvaging something. Anything.
But the fire had spread too quickly. “I lost everything,” Smith recalls. “It was pretty difficult when I first pulled up in front of my house. It was really hard to take in. I was just standing there wearing my lupus t-shirt and shorts, and that’s all I had left in the whole world. Everything was gone—pictures, diplomas, all my personal things. And I even lost my dog.”
Smith didn’t know what to do or who to contact. She had never experienced anything like this before—a life-altering, seismic shift in her personal life—so traumatically, so suddenly, so unexpectedly.
Her home destroyed in a matter of minutes, the bricks charred black from the smoke and flames, Smith looked upon the scene as if in a trance. The exhausted firefighters began rolling up their hoses when one pulled Smith aside and told her a Red Cross volunteer would contact her soon.
What? Who? The Red Cross?
“What do you do in this kind of situation?” Smith thinks back. “When you’ve lost everything, who do you turn to, where do you go? I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even have a toothbrush. Then, all of a sudden the Red Cross shows up.”
Red Cross volunteers, Charlie Vires and Gena Burroughs, arrived the next day with a cash card in hand for Smith to purchase emergency essentials, like a toothbrush, food and clothing. Smith can still see Charlie and Gena’s smiling, calm faces that day.
Trained to work with people having recently suffered a traumatic experience or loss,
they told Smith she could be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and talked with her about emotions she might be feeling.
Over the next three months, Charlie and Gena regularly checked on Smith to see how she was progressing and putting her life back in order.
“That experience really changed my perspective and my perception of the Red Cross,” Smith said. This sudden change in thinking caught her off guard.
Born and raised in the United States, Smith is of Haitian descent. After Hurricane Matthew, a powerful storm that hit in Haiti in 2016 and devastated the island, the perception by some Haitians as well as Smith was that the Red Cross could have done more, Smith said.
Smith added that she was aware that some African Americans in St. Louis communities and elsewhere, had concerns about the level of service delivered by the Red Cross to African Americans.
Change of Thinking
Smith’s perceptions of the Red Cross were forever changed in the immediate aftermath of losing her own home to fire. She learned firsthand how helpful the Red Cross is to someone in time of need.
As Smith emerged from the darkness of that experience, she was approached by Joe Nadreau, a Wells Fargo executive and colleague, and chairman of the American Red Cross Board of Directors in St. Louis.
Nadreau was a longtime ambassador for the Red Cross and asked Smith if she would be interested in joining the Dr. Charles Drew Advisory Board, a Red Cross group focused on increasing blood donations, particularly in African American communities, to support people with sickle cell disease who need regular blood transfusions.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 365 African Americans are born with sickle cell disease. Regular blood transfusions are a critical treatment for persons with sickle cell disease so the need for blood donations is constant.
Time Well Spent
Smith joined the Dr. Charles Drew Advisory Board and spends much of her volunteer time planning and attending blood drive events, spreading the word to help motivate and recruit donors. Much of this activity starts at the committee level where she is
proud to have a voice in helping to achieve Red Cross blood donation goals.
Smith’s newfound devotion to the cause did not go unnoticed by her mentor, Nadreau, who soon nominated her to be an American Red Cross Greater St. Louis Chapter board member, which she readily accepted. She has also become involved in developing the local Red Cross Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
According to Smith, volunteering for the Red Cross has unveiled a new perspective and appreciation for the organization and her fellow volunteers.
“It’s fascinating to me to be a part of an organization where the people are willing to volunteer so much of their personal time, even when you know they are carrying their own heavy personal loads. Everyone is very passionate. They’re like superheroes who just show up when people need them the most.”
Smith notes that her appreciation for the Red Cross is not limited to the Missouri and Arkansas Region, or even the rest of the country. Since becoming a volunteer she has found herself a foot soldier and ambassador for a global organization that has proven time and time again its very existence is critical to the well-being of every person in need, no matter their circumstances, race or economic level.
“It has certainly given me a new outlook and appreciation for the people who represent this organization.”
Nikki Smith’s transformation may have begun in a small south St. Louis neighborhood, but her perspective of the Red Cross and her real-world contributions as a volunteer, have grown to global proportions.