A Volunteer’s Sense of Belonging and Purpose at the Red Cross

By Carolyn Gargano, Red Cross Volunteer and Photos by Fran Collin, Red Cross Volunteer

With unstoppable wind gusts, the Alisal Fire raced down the mountain burning homes, impacting both the 101 freeway and the Amtrak train route along the Northern Santa Barbara coastline. Quickly residents were evacuated, train passengers stranded, and our primary freeway closed. But it didn’t stop there. In the wake of the fire, we were about to get a torrential downpour that put the resident’s homes that didn’t burn at a high risk for debris flows in the canyon’s fresh burn scar area. 

I joined the American Red Cross during the pandemic on August 4, 2020, and immediately got to work helping during the 2020 wildfire season. All of my disaster relief volunteer work to this point was virtual. This was my first in-person experience and it was 36 miles from my doorstep, making it especially personal for me.

During the fire, our Red Cross shelter was located in the Dos Pueblos High School gym. The school staff were incredibly generous, and the students were understanding of the situation. I was approached by one of the evacuated residents who was desperate to get access to his property. He said “I was told to come to the Red Cross because you have the power to do something to help me, and I need help right now. My pets are at my house, and I need to get them out.” I connected him with Jessica Hodge, our Disaster Program Manager, and she quickly got in touch with the Sheriff Department who coordinated with him directly to escort him up to save his pets. In that moment, I lived one example of the Red Cross power to bring comfort. 

My most meaningful moment in the shelter was with our last client, a man waiting on if his home made it in the fire. This is that moment you feel the power of our commitment – One person remaining in the shelter and the Red Cross is there for him. Not knowing if his property was spared, until seeing a social media post image from a local news reporter of his burned boat. A silent glance to each other, words of compassion, and immediately a case was opened to help him. 

After evacuations were lifted, we set up a supply truck at the base of the canyon where volunteers handed out clean-up materials, N-95 masks, cases of water and crucial debris flow information packets. Here I met with residents who had lost everything but were filled with gratitude for the Red Cross being there for them in their time of need. “I can’t help today, but I will join you to help neighbors in the future,” they said. When you are handing someone a shovel to dig through the rubble of what was their dream home, and they say that…it’s why I’m a volunteer and always will be. 

As a Red Cross volunteer, I’m filled with an un-breakable connection with my community. A sense of belonging, purpose and the ability to be there when it really matters…and that’s everything. 

Carolyn Gargano
Volunteers like Carolyn make our work possible. Whether it’s providing help and comfort to a family after a home fire, reuniting a service member with their family, helping a community prepare for disasters, or delivering lifesaving blood to a patient, the Red Cross is there. Join us this season at redcross.org

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