Monday, August 29, 2011

I volunteered at an emergency evacuatation center

Never Done: I volunteered at an emergency evacuatation center

When I woke up on Sunday and realized that there was no flooding in the basement of the house where we live, and that no trees came down on any part of our house or car -- although there were plenty down just 1/2 block away -- so it could have happened) and that there was really no chance of any flooding whatsoever in my neighborhood (I live in one of the highest points in Brooklyn) ... once I realized all that, I knew I had an entire day ahead of me, to do as I wished. One thing I wished was to watch episodes of Friday Night Lights, my new TV rerun obsession. I also wanted to get out and explore my neighborhood in the wake of Irene. But I also -- partly because I had just written about thinking about others during the storm -- wanted to spend some time actively thinking about others, and so I went to the Armory YMCA, which is my wonderful gym, to see if they needed non-Red Cross volunteers.

They did. Sort of. Not really. Josh and I walked over together. First, there were police and National Guard stationed outside, keeping people from getting in and people from getting out. I realized immediately how hard it would be to be in one of these centers. We asked if they needed anything, and the cops did that body positioning thing, where they block you without saying they are blocking you -- without saying anything actually -- until the shelter coordinator came over and said they wouldn't turn away any volunteers. It was an ambiguous answer to the question of whether they needed volunteers, and we soon found out why. But first, we went in to a table set up on the running track, and signed in. We were then sent to talk with the operations coordinator -- a nice woman from Borough Park who had just arrived that morning. Her message to us was that there was really nothing to do. This shelter was for people with medical and developmental disabilities, and so most of the help needed was medical. Nobody was allowed to give out food unless they were medically trained (in case someone was diabetic or had other medical food needs/issues) and they had tons of National Guard guys there for the heavy lifting, so she was not sure what to do with us. But while we stood there talking with her, a Red Cross volunteer came over and asked if any of spoke Russian, because there was a 92 year-old woman in the shelter who barely spoke English, and couldn't fully describe where she lives. The Red Cross volunteer got a degree in Russian 10 years ago, and spoke passably but not fluently. Josh speaks some Russian, but figured it would not be as much as Red Cross woman, so we apologized and declined.

As we were on the way out, it occurred to Josh that maybe the woman spoke Yiddish. We went back over, and were brought over to the woman, and Red asked, but no -- she was not Jewish. But once over there, we discovered that there was a question about the woman's ability to know where she lives -- and maybe not so much a language barrier. We went out again, and Josh again had an idea -- we have plenty of friends who are fluent in Russian, so we called one of them, and reached P while she was at Yidish Vokh (Yiddish Week.) Again we went inside, and again we went to the woman -- and this time explained that we had someone on the phone. This is when the most amazing thing happened. While she was waiting to talk with P, this woman gestured to her cot and to the little plastic container of pudding and apple sauce that the shelter had brought her -- to offer us a place to sit, and something to eat. The gesture was full of grace, and reminded me what it means to be human -- fully human -- to offer something when you have little, potentially not even your complete faculties.

As it turned out, P and the woman spoke, and they got a little than anyone else did -- they got her street corners, but not a house number or apartment number or whether it's a nursing home or a private home. I could tell that it gave a great level of relief and peace of mind to the woman to speak with someone who understood her -- her whole face changed; she felt cared for. When they got off the phone, she thanked us, and once again we left -- for the final time. In the end, this might have been the most important thing we could have done -- to bring comfort, communication, and peace of mind to an elderly woman who was far from home and disconnected from her people. If I ever find myself in such a situation, I hope there are people who can do that for me.

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