By NANCY FORMAN | Contributing Writer
Palisadian Nancy Forman shares her experience helping out at the Pali High shelter during the Woolsey fire.
Irecently became CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) certified, so when the Red Cross reached out for extra hands at the Palisades Charter High School shelter for those affected by the fires, I volunteered.
My shift started at 6 p.m. and for the next 12 hours, I would be assisting with in-take and whatever else needed to be done.
This would turn out to be one of the most rewarding nights I would ever spend.
The shelter was set up in the gym, and there were about 30 or so people with us through the night. I would say about half of our “guests” were chronically homeless—after all, they were displaced, too.
Others were waiting to get back to their homes (if they were even still standing) because the roads were closed. They didn’t know how long they would be staying with us or what the future had in store for them.
Thanks to local restaurants and businesses, there was plenty of delicious food and supplies—everything from fresh sheets, blankets, pillows, towels (hot showers were available), dog food, dog crates—for just about any need.
There was a nurse and a few social workers. There was even a small TV. The volunteers were amazing in making sure everyone was as comfortable as possible.
The first person I saw was a man in sweats and a hoodie, sitting at the front table, not looking very happy. Since this was a new shift, new people were coming and going and trying to get organized, so I figured he may have been waiting a long time for some help.
He told the nurse he had hurt his legs when he was trying to outrun the fire, and had slid his motorcycle and scraped up his legs. The nurse had him wash his cuts with soap and water before she treated him but he still looked uncomfortable.
Then someone handed him a fresh pair of socks. Wow—clean socks! You might have thought he just won the lottery.
His face lit up in an ear-to-ear grin and he shuffled off to his cot for a good night’s sleep. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that happy by a pair of socks.
Next was a lovely, soft-spoken woman with her dog, Code. I asked her where she lived and she replied, “Wherever I can. Last night we slept on the beach. It was so cold. So cold.”
She signed her name and handed me her form and said, “It’s so hard.”
“Let me give you a hug,” I said. She laid her head on my shoulder and just cried.
Then there was a middle-aged construction worker. He had a perpetually outdoor tan and was grateful for some food, a shower and place to lay his head.
He was fatalistic about his situation, had a “can-do” attitude about anything that was asked of him, and had appreciation for his shelter and the peace it provided him.
A pretty woman walked in with her son who looked to be about 20. She didn’t want to sleep in the shelter, saying she and her son were perfectly comfortable sleeping in their car, and they preferred to stay in the parking lot overnight. She gratefully ate some hot food, accepted some warm blankets and went outside to bundle up in the car.
Between helping “guests,” we played backgammon and cards through the night. People would ask for permission to go outside for a walk and if they would be able to come back in.
I was surprised how many people were awake and moving around in the middle of the night. I guess if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t be sleeping too well either.
I drove home the next morning under a beautiful sunrise to be with my family and my dog and to get some sleep in my bed. Many of the other Red Cross workers would drive to work for the day.
I felt so humbled by the other volunteers and grateful that I was able to help in some small way. I was grateful that my house was not in the fire, sick for those who were affected and a renewed determination not to judge, because you never know what someone else is going through.
As a matter of fact, I think it would be a good idea for everyone to spend a night in a shelter helping others. For me, volunteering to help those affected by tragedy was so rewarding, it almost felt selfish.
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