First person: volunteer connects with shelter client facing “new beginning” after apartment fire

By Diana Higgenbottom, American Red Cross

As I walked into the American Red Cross emergency shelter on Feb. 23, it was clear to me that everything the residents had in their possession in this moment was all that they had left to call “belongings.” But as I learned from one shelter resident, there was much more to see in a person’s response and recovery than physical belongings.

A few of Lisa White’s belongings after a fire at her apartment building. She’s spent the past week at a shelter run by the American Red Cross.

Two days earlier, an early morning fire had caused widespread damage, displacing all 30 residents. For the foreseeable future, there’s no going back to what once home was now destroyed and uninhabitable.

As I looked around the shelter at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, one woman seemed to generate a light, which caught my eye. I walked over to her cot and smattering of belongings in the shelter just as if I were walking into her home. Lisa White or “Miss Lisa” welcomed me and agreed enthusiastically to share a little bit of her story.

Almost everything she owned had perished in the fire. Still, she had a smile on her face. With so much uncertain in the aftermath of this disaster, she had a sense of security. In part, it came from the volunteers around her and the other shelter residents. Miss Lisa said several times during our conversation that she “knew this moment was rough but knew everything happening was only temporary … the Red Cross doesn’t leave anyone behind.” 

Lisa told me that she has proudly lived in Milwaukee her whole life, where she ultimately graduated from Washington High School. In addition, Miss Lisa had lived in that apartment building for 32-and-a-half years, making her the longest running tenant. She explained to me that the very first year she was living at the building, there was also a fire that caused substantial damage. However, at that time it remained inhabitable.

Fast forward more than three decades and this recent fire took so much – but not her spirit. I could see her inner joy amid devastation. To get a few basic priorities together and more like her normal life, she said she took a few days off from her local cleaning job. The many things people don’t think about after a disaster like a home fire.

A Milwaukee County Transit System bus transports residents from their uninhabitable apartment building to a shelter a few blocks away.

Miss Lisa went on to tell me that as she got on the bus after the fire to go to the shelter, she realized she didn’t know a lot of the people in the building. These strangers in their own building, strangers on the bus, were now becoming neighbors through the bonds they were making at this disaster shelter and over meals after the fire.

Honestly, I was in awe of her – a sense of peace and security through this disruptive situation. She was quick to tell me that she had hope and trust in the Red Cross, and that she had her needs in this moment taken care of. Through the first week of the disaster, Red Cross teams had provided these residents with 65 overnight stays at the shelter, more than 300 meals and snacks, and dozens of health, mental health and spiritual care resources.

With those things in place, Miss Lisa said she could put back together the pieces of her life from before the fire. She said that this is the beginning of the rest of her life, not the end. Miss Lisa called it a “new beginning.” Where Miss Lisa sees the Red Cross as a symbol of hope, I can clearly see her as a reflection of hope and determination. 

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