By Jim Gallagher
The fire destroyed a house in south central Missouri, leaving a 19-year-old teen and his 16-year-old brother in a world of trouble. The older boy had been taking care of the younger since their mother died six months earlier.
A Red Cross Disaster Action Team provided quick financial help for the boys, then Ann Liles took over as a recovery volunteer. Her task was to help the boys rebuild their lives, and so far, things had been going poorly.
“I appreciate the money you gave us,” the older boy told Liles. He’d used it to replace ruined clothes for his brother. But the big brother had been washing his own jeans every day before work because they were the only ones he had.
Liles knew that something was a kilter. The home was insured, and most homeowner’s policies provide living expenses for fire victims. The boy had called the insurance agent, but after two weeks, neither the agent nor an adjuster had shown up.
Liles got the agent on the phone, and heard excuses. She wasn’t buying them and said what was needed to get the agent to come out quickly. Meanwhile, Liles contacted a church and other charities to get the boys more help.
Advocating for fire victims is just one roll for Liles. For the past year, she’s served as an essential helper for dozens of Disaster Action Team volunteers in Missouri and Arkansas adapting to the new RC Cares software now used for disaster response calls.
Liles participated as part of system review teams and was an active member for the roll out effort, spending countless hours on the task to ensure the new system was a success and serving as a go-to person for issues.
Liles started early with the Red Cross. As a teenager in her native Kentucky, she worked in a blood lab. Then life ensued. She married and had two children. She got a job with Valvoline, first in finance, then as a representative to big retailers. The company moved her from Kentucky to Michigan, then to Springfield, Missouri. She lives in nearby Ozark.
In 2005, she happened to sit next to a Red Cross volunteer on an airplane. The volunteer was headed south for relief work after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. He talked about feeding and sheltering disaster victims.
“I thought, ‘wow. When I have time, I want to get back to the Red Cross,’” Liles recalled.
She took early retirement in 2014 and signed up as a Red Cross volunteer.
Since then, she’s deployed to floods and fires, working with disaster clients and conducting damage assessment. As with most volunteers, there are stories she can’t forget.
There was the 12-year-old girl interpreting Spanish for her parents after a major flood in Texas. Liles knew that a man had drowned in a car in the parking lot of the girl’s apartment complex.
As the little girl described the night, Liles worried that she had watched the man die. The girl described watching a car pull into the parking lot and be surrounded by water. “Then my daddy broke a window and got the man out,” the girl said. Liles felt relief.
These days, Liles is Regional Volunteer Recovery Lead and Regional RC Care Application Lead at the Red Cross.
RC Cares replaced the old Client Assistance System as the way to register clients and approve assistance. The old CAS system was lacking. It was “simplistic” and limited in what it could do, said Liles.
The new system provides strong support for both those being helped and for the Red Cross. It was two years in development.
Still, volunteers were accustomed to CAS. “It was like an old pair of shoes. They don’t look pretty, but they were comfortable,” she noted.
Moving to new software is always anxiety prone, so, Liles joined the roll out team. Scores of volunteers in Missouri and Arkansas saw her speak on Microsoft Teams sessions. She set aside live video “office hours” where volunteers could ask questions.
What is her advice for volunteers still reluctant to try RC Cares?
“If they’re afraid of it at first, I don’t blame them,” she says. “By now, we have a lot of folks that are really good at it. If it’s purely fear of technology, don’t let that stop you,” she said.
During the pandemic, the Disaster Action Team has been helping individuals affected by disasters virtually whenever possible. But as the situation with COVID-19 improves, the Red Cross will return to more in-person service. “Our mission is to provide human comfort,” she said.
“We’ll give and get hugs again,” she noted.
The plan is for volunteers to use RC Cares in the field, via tablet computers or smart phones. “It’s better to get used to this on a home computer, than on the hood of a car in the dark,” she said.