On Friday, July 23, a fire broke out at the Bristol Station Apartments in Carteret, New Jersey, destroying an entire building comprised of 48 housing units. Many of the residents lost everything in the fire, including beloved pets.
American Red Cross volunteers were on scene that afternoon providing comfort and care to the affected families, as well as assessing their immediate needs. Shortly after, it was determined a shelter would be needed for those families with no place to stay and a Red Cross Shelter Strike Team was activated. The elevated COVID-19 risk status called for our team to set up a non-congregate shelter at a nearby hotel in lieu of a dormitory style shelter at any of our pre-designated community shelter locations. While seven families stayed at the shelter first night, the number soon rose to 14 families with 34 people needing shelter.
In addition to sheltering, the Red Cross, thanks to our generous donors, provided emergency financial assistance to 104 people in 45 families. This assistance helps families purchase food, clothing and other immediately needed items.
Wearing personal protective equipment like face masks and gloves, but also their hearts on their sleeves, shelter volunteers delivered meals and comfort items to families during their stay at the shelter. The volunteers kept a pantry of sorts, with items like snacks, baby diapers, PPE items, coloring books and games for children, and comfort kits containing toiletry items like toothbrushes and other hygiene items, were all accessible to families.
Robert Sebben and his wife, who lived on the third floor of the apartment building were not home last Friday when the fire started. He explained just how meaningful the Red Cross services have been.
“They took some of the load off. Once you don’t have a place to go home to and you don’t know how you’re going to eat, and all your stuff is not there – Red Cross supplied us,” said Sebben. “I didn’t have to worry about a place to stay, I didn’t have to worry about food and the Red Cross gave us financial suport,” he added. “It was those things to get us through the first few days when you’re overwhelmed and don’t have a frame of mind to take all of that.”
The day after the fire, Red Cross volunteer caseworkers quickly got to work meeting virtually with families to discuss other needs like health services. Throughout the week following the fire, three of our compassionate health services volunteers and several of our disaster mental health and spiritual care volunteers helped families and individuals with more than 32 services. Whether it was assistance with medication, medical equipment, eye glass replacements or spiritual care, our volunteers did all they could to help meet immediate health needs of many families. Our trained volunteers also helped many to cope with the stress that comes from such a traumatic experience.
The Red Cross also had disaster workers on hand for a day at a community resource center, coordinated by Carteret officials, where fire clients were able to access additional recovery resources from numerous state and local agencies and nonprofit organizations.
“The Red Cross is pleased to work alongside government partners like Middlesex County Office of Emergency Management, the Carteret OEM and Mayor Daniel Reiman to ensure that those needing guidance about next steps to recovery would receive it,” said Kim Goetz, executive director, American Red Cross of Central New Jersey.
“And now, we have a checklist of things to do,” said Sebben. “A place to live, check. Our documents, check. And soon, we’ll be getting close to normal.”
One week after the fire, disaster workers helped check out all 14 families from the shelter. The volunteers also handed out farewell breakfast and snack bags they put together for anyone who needed a quick meal.
More than 90 percent of the Red Cross disaster workforce in New Jersey are volunteers. “We are so incredibly grateful to the 51 Red Crossers who responded to this disaster and who, with great care and compassion, assisted these families after this fire upended their lives,” said Goetz. “It is with thanks to them, as well as our generous donors and supporters, that we could be there to bring care, comfort, and immediate assistance to so many New Jersey families.”
As he thanked the Red Crossers when leaving the hotel, Robert Sebben added, “The money that people donate – it has a face to it. It’s us. They are helping people who need it.”
As the hotel lobby grew quiet and volunteers were packing up the last of the shelter supplies, a Red Cross staffer thanked volunteer Gerald Kibiru for being there and playfully added, “Your check is in the mail.”
Kibiru quickly responded, “No, the check is in the heart.”
If you would like to be a part of the Red Cross Disaster Action Team in New Jersey and help your local neighbors when disaster strikes, visit redcross.org/volunteer to get started.