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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Arvada Volunteer Answers the Christmas Call for Help

by Patricia Billinger
Just four days before Christmas, Guy Forti got the call: the Red Cross needed him. Heavy rains and flooding in Oregon and southwest Washington had forced the evacuation of hundreds of people. The Red Cross had responded with shelters, food and assistance. Now, more than two weeks into the operation, they needed reinforcements.

Volunteer Guy Forti
“The poor people in Oregon and Washington had opened 11 shelters and had been operating them for 18-19 days without a day off. They needed help,” Guy recalled. The response covered 21 counties and already involved many of the local volunteer workforce. Add to that the impending holiday, and Red Cross disaster response organizers had to expand the scope of their search for volunteers all the way to Colorado – to volunteers including Guy.

“I got a call asking: Guy, would you be willing to go out and work in a shelter outside of Portland?  And I said, oh my goodness, I’ll have to get back with you on that. So I called my wife, she was at work. She says, our Christmas is set with the kids and everybody,” Guy said. His eyes welled up with tears as he remembered what happened next. “Deb says, You do what you do best. She’s a big supporter of what I do.” With a shrug, he concluded: “I came down to the chapter and did my paperwork.”

Flooding affected homes in Oregon and Washington;
mudslides and unstable ground forced additional evacuations.
The next day, Guy was on a plane to serve as a shelter worker in Oregon City, Oregon. Most of the families at the shelter were impoverished residents of  Section 8 apartment buildings that had been evacuated as the land beneath them began to slough off in the heavy rains. Red Cross caseworkers were meeting with clients to help them navigate plans to transition out of the shelter into something more permanent and to connect them with assistance and resources to help them begin their recovery, but it was slow going.

 “They don’t have anything. For something like this to happen to them, they just stared like deer in the headlights. They had no idea how to find a place to live with no money,” Guy said.
He noted that the stress of disaster, trauma and uncertainty was exacerbated by the emotional pull of the holidays. Red Cross disaster mental health workers met with residents one-on-one to help them cope. Meanwhile, the rest of the Red Cross workers at the shelter, along with members of the local community, mounted a special effort to brighten spirits in the shelter.

The Red Cross and community partners
brought in a Christmas Tree and presents
for the children in the shelter.
“For kids staying in a shelter – any shelter I’ve been in – it’s more like a camp for them. They don’t realize the burden of their mothers and fathers. These families already had so little. So the Red Cross, the community and other agencies got together to make sure they got to have Christmas,” Guy said. They brought in two Christmas trees, secured new gifts for the children, wrapped them and placed them under the trees.

“We loaded those trees with all kinds of wrapped gifts. On Christmas morning, they got up and opened gifts – there was paper flying all over!”  A local “pancake man” dressed up as an elf, handed out paper plates, and flipped pancakes to the waiting children as they squealed and caught them on their plates.

Guy did find a moment during the day to call his wife. His children knew he was deployed and had encouraged his choice. “They’re all starting to understand that this is pretty neat,” he explained.

“I spent Christmas celebrating Christmas with the people in the shelter,” Guy said. “I treated it as another Disaster Relief Operation. I couldn’t let the time of year affect my work. Everybody in the shelter, we were tired from working 12 hour days, so to have such a wonderful Christmas for the kids….” Guy choked up and shook his head, eyes misty. He didn’t need to finish his thought: it meant a lot to him, and touched him in a way that there were no words to describe.

Are you looking for a meaningful way to give back? Consider becoming a trained Red Cross volunteer. You’ll start by responding to everyday disasters right in your local community. Find out more and sign up at http://www.redcross.org/local/co/denvervolunteer 

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