Fires do more than burn

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As part of a Red Cross disaster relief team, Rose Ingebrigtsen has responded to several house fires in northern Minnesota, including one in Virginia on January 26, 2016. Photo credit: Nancy Rogers/American Red Cross

By Rose Ingebrigtsen, an American Red Cross intern serving in northern Minnesota

When I saw that the American Red Cross serving Northern Minnesota was looking for a disaster services intern I was immediately interested. Even though I did not have any prior experience with the Red Cross personally, I knew it must be a great place to work. Why else would 330,000 volunteers nationwide serve for free? At this point I am mostly learning about disaster response and capacity building for The Pillowcase Project (a youth disaster preparedness program that the Red Cross is doing in partnership with Disney), which is great because I love doing hands on work and working directly with people.

That changed on Friday, January 22, when I was able to go on my first D.A.T. (Disaster Action Team) response with the Red Cross. I was a little nervous due to the fact I had never done anything like this before, but I was lucky enough to be accompanied by our local disaster program manager and seasoned D.A.T. captain Tony Guerra.

Before meeting with the affected resident, we drove to the address to see first-hand the condition of the burned house. Due to sketchy cell service and an unreliable maps app we couldn’t find the house, but it turned out there wasn’t much of a house left to find. Later, when we met our client, I quickly learned how hard it is to be really prepared for a house fire, and that no one knows exactly what to do after and much of their belongings are damaged or gone. This client was no different: all she had now were the clothes on her back and, luckily, her purse.

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In northern Minnesota local community members help the Red Cross provide basic comfort and care to people who have suffered a tremendous loss because of home fire and other disasters. Photo credit: Nancy Rogers/American Red Cross.

After we assessed our client’s needs and determined what steps she needed to take next we brought her a donated quilt, which she appreciated so much. Typically these quilts are made by local church groups, and then they are donated to disaster victims and military veterans through the Red Cross. Giving someone in need a quilt is, I think, fitting. Back in the day, imported fabric was expensive for the average person in America and it was difficult to find sufficient, affordable fabric locally. The solution was to salvage scraps of fabric and to sew together into a quilt. Today, after someone has a house fire family, friends, strangers, and the Red Cross come together like small pieces of fabric to help people rebuild their lives.

Before beginning this internship, I had no idea how many house fires there were in our area and the damage they do besides burning up the contents of your house: think smoke damage or water damage. Since my first response in January, I’ve had the opportunity to respond to two more fire disasters in northern Minnesota. I was struck by the devastation residents feel after losing much to all of their belongings, and how much Red Cross disaster relief is necessary and appreciated. I hope there will be fewer house fires in the area. But if there are more I hope I have the opportunity respond again, because I have enjoyed lending a hand and making a direct positive difference in someone’s life.

Volunteer Spotlight: Melinda Wittmer

MelindaMeet Melinda Wittmer, a Disaster Services volunteer for the American Red Cross serving Northern Minnesota.

Melinda has been a Disaster Services volunteer since 2011, and is part of the Disaster Action Team (DAT). She also has recently taken on a new role with Volunteer Services – she’ll be interviewing prospective volunteers to introduce them to the volunteer opportunities at the Red Cross and help them find a good fit.

As a child, Melinda was introduced to the Red Cross as part of her home-school curriculum, in which her mother made the Red Cross a recurring theme. What Melinda took away from that was that the Red Cross “is a solid entity that is always there to help.”

Fast forward to Melinda’s adult life when she was working at a group home and became very close to an individual who turned into one of her favorite clients. His health declined and he was put on life support, and then eventually taken off. At that moment Melinda decided she wanted to do something good and help people. She went to the Red Cross office in Duluth, Minnesota, to ask a few questions, and was immediately “roped in.” Within minutes she was filling out an application, and the rest is history!

Melinda went on her first home fire call with one of the chapter’s most experienced volunteers.  Since then Melinda has responded to over 30 home fires.  Melinda says that the most satisfying part of being a disaster volunteer is “helping people who have experienced a devastating loss and seeing how grateful clients always are for the services of the American Red Cross.”

A few months ago Melinda went through the difficult experience of responding to an incident that involved a fatality. Additionally, it turned out that she was familiar with the person who died. Despite the difficulty involved in this response, Melinda took away the feeling that she was there for the family to help them with the “begin-again phase” of their lives.

The Red Cross has made Melinda more confident, and through her interactions and meeting other volunteers she has become interested in pursuing a career in Emergency Management.

Melinda certainly embodies the mission and fundamental principles of both the American Red Cross and Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement around the globe.  She’s always ready, willing and able to assist and a great comfort to those who have suffered a loss because of home fires and other disasters.

Story and photo by Nancy Rogers, Volunteer Services Coordinator for the American Red Cross serving Northern Minnesota.

To learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer, click here.