“You can tell that they care”: Greenfield man finds hope in people helping each other under the weight of COVID-19 and an apartment fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jessie Austin saw the smoke pumping out of his Greenfield apartment building, could see the flashing fire truck lights. But his mind was elsewhere.

Austin said he had “déjà vu” to other traumatic events in his life, like a fire during his youth that took a friend’s mother, and his experiences in the Army during the evacuation of Vietnam in the 1970s.

GF fire Jessie Austin chair ONE

Jessie Austin shares from a hotel in Milwaukee, a temporary home as he works on next steps in his recovery with the American Red Cross and others.

With his own apartment and belongings uncertain, under the shared stress of a global pandemic, Austin said he knew the “best way to deal with things was to get them out.” He started talking – with his neighbors on scene, on the phone with his counselor from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and multiple times each day with volunteers from the American Red Cross.

“[T]he volunteers from the Red Cross … they are very committed, compassionate people,” Austin said Thursday from a hotel sheltering operation where he and 10 other residents were staying.

“They don’t do a whole lot of talking; they’re there for support, like a sounding board. It’s … easy conversation because you can tell that they care. That’s the main thing. I’m very appreciative of them.”

In all, 19 people were displaced by the apartment building fire on April 20 and the Red Cross has worked with the residents on resources and recovery plans. In the time of COVID-19, crucial disaster response and recovery work persists – including a higher-than-normal rate of home fires for this time of year – with disaster teams adding extra safety steps along the way like daily health checks, an emphasis on virtual interactions, and masks and gloves whenever out in the field.

GF fire Jessie food Jim Robin Berzowski

American Red Cross volunteers Robin Berzowski, right, and Jim Berzowski, bring ‘room service’ meals to Jessie Austin, who was one of nearly 20 people displaced by a recent fire in Greenfield. The food drop offs are part of additional health and safety steps by disaster workers amid COVID-19.

It was the weight of the pandemic that turned Austin downright philosophical as he shared his story, his soft voice underscoring the importance he finds in keeping up hope and finding a way to help others. In a hat that read “United States of America” and prepping his hot lunch brought by Red Cross volunteers from a local diner, Austin expressed the deeper values he sees amid this unsettled moment.

“This Coronavirus thing, I’m telling people, look at what’s really going on. This thing is causing us to lean on each other and to continue to understand what life is all about. It’s about people helping each other. That’s what counts, that’s what’s important,” he said. “It’s the respect, knowing that you’ve been cared about, knowing that you count, knowing that in the long run, it’s time that is the most precious thing that we have.”

The spirit of people like Austin looking out for each other and sharing what help is available has been evident to Red Cross Disaster Action Team (or DAT) volunteers Jim and Robin Berzowski.

The couple has led food deliveries from generous Milwaukee restaurants like Don’s Diner and Landmark Family Restaurant, to the hotel sheltering the apartment complex residents. The dynamic duo of Jim and Robin – jokingly known as “DATman and Robin” among the Southeast Wisconsin disaster team – said they’ve felt grateful to be able to bring tasty meals to the residents, though the social distancing and other health steps have taken some getting used to.

GF fire COVID April 2020 Jim Robin Berzowski Landmark food pickup

Food pick up on April 23 from a Milwaukee restaurant, with meals destined for residents of a recent apartment building fire, one of many fires during an unusually busy spring.

As they delivered spaghetti dinners to each room at the hotel shelter Thursday, residents like Jessie gave quick updates on talks with their Red Cross caseworkers, and others let Jim and Robin know what they had heard from their neighbors earlier that day.

“We’re helping but they’re helping each other out, too,” Jim Berzowski said.

For more information on the response to COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan – including ways you can get involved – visit this site.

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