Lisa Crouch- Hurricane Irma

Lisa is a child life specialist who works for Quincy Community Schools in Michigan.  Here is her deployment story:

The need to be flexible started before I even got to the airport. I was signed up for a relief team for Harvey…. 2 days before deployment we got word that Red Cross wanted a Children’s Disaster Services team in Florida AHEAD of Irma… yep… that was my team. They were “redirecting”. Wow… I wasn’t sure what to think, I mean I was all about being a relief team… but going into a Cat 5 Hurricane?… My family thought I was nuts! (and I wasn’t so sure I wasn’t)

But, I was like, well I have made all these arrangements, I feel like I am supposed to be on this deployment…so here I go, those kids need our help!

I arrived in Orlando on planes that were more than half empty. What a strange feeling to get off the plane at Orlando International, and see the airport full of people waiting to get out… and here I was going in!

I was full of anxiety and excitement at the same time. All I was told the night before we left was to be prepared for anything. Irma was a monster storm and they didn’t know much other than they needed us and hundreds of other volunteers to get on the next plane to Florida. Red Cross assured us that safety was a top priority and I felt confident that we were safe.

Once on the ground, I met up with the rest of my team and we reported to headquarters or Red Cross Command Central. It was a buzz of activity, anxiety and a little bit of crazy. Everyone had the mission in their heart…and were determined to find a way to care for the people of Florida. They assured us that the evacuation centers being set up met strict structural engineering standards that made them the safest places to be in a Hurricane. (*mind a little more at ease)

This was my first deployment with CDS, so coming prepared for anything was really hard, because I really didn’t know what I was preparing for.  I had never been anywhere close to a hurricane before.

I learned so much, so quickly (i.e. granola bars can sustain you for days and cheese sticks are shelf stable). Honestly, we were well fed, but having back up plans for food was really critical because sometimes you just didn’t know when or what the food choices would be. When our assignments for riding out the storm came, we found our CDS team split apart, they wanted us to divide and conquer and try to help the most kids possible through the storm.

So, Saturday afternoon, our 3 separate teams were dispatched: One to the tip of Florida Gulf Side, one central inland (me), and one into the panhandle area.

My CDS Partner and I arrived at our Evacuation Center to find it taking in a steady stream of people…with hundreds already there since early that morning.

All the volunteer staff were sleeping on the floor in the teacher lounge, for the next 3 days it became our home, comfort kit central, and the people we shared the space with became like family. There is something really powerful about helping people in a time of crisis, and having the same mission. We worked as a multi-dimensional team and made our evacuation center a safe haven for the families coming in from the storm.

Due to the nature of being pre-landfall, being deployed as teams of 2, and the limitations of our space, we had to be really creative in what we could do with the kids in our center. We began with art and the kids flocked to our small area of the gym. Many pictures were painted and kids were smiling again after a long day of sitting around. As the storm got closer, anxiety continued to build.

There was so much waiting…and everyone felt it. The next day, we waited all day for Irma to join us mid-state. We played games with the kids, parachute games, more art, water bottle bowling, play-doh, Jenga and Uno… it was a long day but a really good day of play. The kids and families were so thankful for everything we brought out to help pass the time, it really made me feel good to see the kids smiling and families playing games and coloring together. We used every ounce of supplies we had with us.

Irma came and went in the night….  It was intense, scary, and brought some crazy moments. I don’t think anyone slept at all that night. From tornado warnings to our fire alarms going off, it was high anxiety for everyone. With the sun the next morning, came a fresh hope. Kids were smiling and everyone was ready to go out and assess the damage. We survived! (Yes I bought the shirt)

Now, the post-landfall…. What are the next steps? How can our CDS team get reunited?

Phone calls were made, and we were on our way back to Orlando headquarters.

Our team was reunited (and it felt so good) at RC Headquarters and within 24 hours redeployed to a Shelter in Fort Myers Area.  Another point in the being flexible concept – We arrived to find out our shelter was being combined with another one, so we moved too. Then a few days later, that shelter was moved again. Each time we moved, it seemed overwhelming and frustrating… Then, I thought about it: yes, it was difficult for us to keep moving and setting back up, but we had a home to go back to you at the end of our deployment. The families in our shelters kept getting moved and moved and moved…and they didn’t have any real end point. How devastating that must feel to them? New compassion bloomed in my chest!

In each of our locations, we got to set up an actual play center area, like we had trained for. The space where we spent the most days was very small, but we took in a LOT of kids each day, and they loved every activity. We made the most of it, every square inch.

Just to see the kids PLAY and be kids again for a short amount of time, made all the problems seem small. It changed the entire atmosphere of the shelter having us there. We made car race tracks out of cardboard, banana boxes became our art stations, red cross blankets became soft spots on the floor to read a book or play with puppets. It was healing and it was so good.

This work is not for the light hearted. I call it soul work; it breaks your heart and mends your heart depending on the each moment as it comes at you. You are making a difference to the people that are in their darkest hour, and it is not about you at all.

It isn’t pretty, it isn’t easy… and you have to be willing to go the extra 10 miles to make it a great experience. It takes a deep dig into your soul to keep you going because sometimes all you want to do is cry. In the end, it is the most rewarding experience I have ever had. I am thankful I was there and got to make a small difference to each kid I got to work with. They are so brave and so full of life-they are our future.

I have been told every deployment is different. I can’t wait until my next time to see. <3  Lisa Crouch