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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How a Simple Phone Call Reduced Anxiety on Two Continents

by Patricia Billinger

Mrs. C is a gentle, quiet, positive woman who doesn’t like to draw attention to herself. That’s why she agreed to share her story, but asked not to share her name and photo. That’s also why she didn’t initially think to ask for help with a somewhat unusual need: help placing a call to Italy.

Mrs. C is petite, with dove grey hair and a soft, round, smiling face. Neatly coiffed and dressed in clean clothes that fit her small frame well, you wouldn’t know at first glance that she was an evacuee who had spent the past 7 nights in a Red Cross shelter.

The Red Cross shelter where Mrs. C has been staying.
Mrs. C is one of the 130 seniors who were displaced from their apartments last week due to an apartment fire. She has been staying at the Red Cross shelter in Littleton since then. And while she quickly met her physical needs at the shelter through hot meals, fresh clothes, and help obtaining medications, she didn’t know that the Red Cross could also help her with her other most pressing need. It wasn’t a physical need, but it was just as important: she hadn’t spoken with her family in over a week, and she was worried about their inability to reach her and that they would be anxious about her well being after such an extended period of silence.

Her fears came up during a conversation with a Red Cross caseworker who met with her to find out how she was doing and open a case to determine what disaster-related needs she had and how the Red Cross and other community agencies could help meet those needs. “Yesterday, I went to sign up for the case and I said I have two problems. This is one of them: I can’t get a hold of my kids. I don’t have a phone, and I don’t know how to do it,” Mrs. C recalled.

Mrs. C was born in the United States but traveled to Italy as a young adult. “I went to meet the Pope, then I met my husband, married and had kids and raised them,” she said. After living in Italy for 40 years, she returned to the United States with her family – but her daughter and son missed the home where they were raised, and they moved back to Italy. They stay in touch with regular calls and visits.

“Me and my kids call each other and leave each other messages. If I’m home, I answer. If they’re home, they answer. Otherwise we leave messages,” she explained. Without her land line, she doesn’t have a phone capable of making international calls, and she doesn’t have a computer so never emails her children. She knew her children would worry about her when they called her evacuated apartment and got no answer. “Once before this happened. They were working on the phones and the phones were off, and my kids were so worried when they couldn’t reach me. ‘Is she sick? Is she dead?’ they were calling several times a day trying to reach me. That’s why I was so worried about this!”

Mrs. C’s Red Cross caseworker quickly got the word delivered to the Colorado & Wyoming region’s Restoring Family Links (RFL) program. Restoring Family Links is an international Red Cross program that works to reconnect families separated by conflict, disaster and migration. The Colorado & Wyoming Region is a participant in the Red Cross Restoring Family Links phone program, which provides free phone calls between family members who have been separated. In Colorado, a Red Cross worker brings a cell phone to the local family member and connects the call to their loved ones abroad using Google Voice.

The Red Cross Restoring Family Links phone program
helps connect families separated by conflict, disaster and migration
At 9 a.m. the very next morning after Mrs. C met with a Red Cross caseworker, Red Cross International Services Manager Tim Bothe showed up at the shelter with a cell phone so she could call her daughter in Italy. He took her to a quiet room away from the rest of the shelter residents so she could place the international call.

“I was able to call them today. I left a message and said ‘I’m fine. They’re working on the phones so that’s why you can’t reach me.’ I’m going to write them a card about all this,” Mrs. C said, smiling and gesturing around her at the shelter. She leaned in to explain her little white lie: “I don’t want them going into hysterics over there…once they’ve heard my voice on the message, they can know I’m OK.”

It’s a testament to her character and positive attitude that Mrs. C was so worried about how her situation would affect her children.

“That was a big load off of my shoulders,” she said about being able to let her children know she’s doing fine.

And Mrs. C says she is doing fine. “They took my blood pressure this morning. It was good! They got me some medication for my eyes – eye drops. They gave me some clothes and a jacket and socks, and food every day,” she explained. “I don’t have any worries,” Mrs. C concluded with her characteristic soft smile.

When we think about disasters, we immediately gravitate to the physical needs: shelter. Food. Water. Clothing. Medications. One of the most pressing needs of disaster survivors is far less tangible, but equally important as all the rest: Communication. 

When people have to flee their homes quickly in the face of a fire, wildfire, flood or other disaster, they often find themselves missing critical links in their ability to communicate with loved ones. They may have forgotten or broken their phone or its charger, and may not have loved one’s phone numbers memorized. The Red Cross helps to reconnect people after disasters. 

We encourage you to take two steps today: make a family emergency communication plan, and support the Red Cross in our work helping people affected by disasters and emergencies.

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