By: Anna Fernández-Gevaert, Regional Communications Director of the American Red Cross of Idaho & Montana
I am at a Red Cross shelter in Browning, MT, sitting around a large collapsible banquet table with a handful of Red Cross volunteers. We are eating baked potatoes and chili off Styrofoam plates, in the middle of a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar. All around us, people are unloading supplies, cleaning, talking, eating and sleeping. A radio is blaring on one end of the hangar and just 20 feet farther away, a Blackfeet boy with a long braid down his back is watching a zombie movie on a 13-inch portable TV.
I look around the table and see tired faces. These Red Crossers have only been here a few days, but the work is hard and the emotions are harder. Volunteering for the Red Cross is never easy, even on a good day. During a disaster like this, when hundreds of evacuees rely on a small group of trained volunteers to meet their immediate needs, it is all hands on deck, each giving their all. It takes a toll.
Yet, these people look—happy. Across the table, Gene Wallis, a bon vivant in his seventies from Appleton, WI, with the gift of gab and an impish smile, is holding court. Gene started volunteering with Red Cross 4 years ago and has seen a thing or two. When I ask him what distinguishes this disaster from the others he has seen, his answer is immediate: “The people-–never seen anything like it.”
I ask him what he means. “The Blackfeet people–they are dignified, resilient, they don’t complain. And they are helpful–to us as volunteers and to each other,” he explains. You don’t have to ask them to help—they look around for what is needed and they just do it. It is part of their culture.” He pauses, searching for the right words. “It’s impressive,” he adds.
Joan Richards, a proper-looking lady in her sixties whose face exudes goodness, nods in agreement. “I mentioned that very thing to my supervisor yesterday,” she says. “How impressed I was with this community. I am from Hyannis, MA, and I really did not know anything about the Blackfeet Nation before I arrived at the shelter a few days ago. As soon as I started working here, I noticed how warm and friendly and solicitous the people are in this community.” She leans in, and adds, woman to woman: “Have you noticed how attentive the men are to their children?” I nod, having remarked on that very thing only a few hours earlier. “They also show such respect to their elders,” she says. She adds quietly: “I feel so privileged to have had this experience.”
Nancy McKenney, who sits to my left, adds her own experience as shelter manager. “I needed to do a shelter check, writing down the names of each guest,” she explains. “A group of local women who had been helping us just took over. They knew everyone and got it done in 20 minutes. It would have taken us 2 hours.” Nancy, who is from Pierre, SD, is veteran Red Crosser, the type that has seen it all and takes no prisoners. If she’s impressed, that means something.
I smile to myself and sit back in my chair, looking at the tired faces around me. I marvel at these people, these Red Crossers, who are enthralled with the people they are serving. I wonder if they realize how awestruck I am with them.