Gratitude in Arizona

Members of the Public Affairs Team. From left, Trudy  Thompson-Rice and Dianna Van Horn.

Members of the Public Affairs Team. From left, Trudy Thompson-Rice and Dianna Van Horn.

The moment I landed at the Sky Harbor International Airport, I could sense the gratitude, thick in the air.

Like the Arizona heat, it hit you in the face – smiles from strangers, murmurs of thanks and grateful nods as I rolled my suitcase through the airport. It was then that I remembered I was wearing a Red Cross shirt. Ahh, I get it now.

I got the call last Friday to deploy to Prescott, Arizona, where I would serve as a public affairs supervisor on the Yarnell Wildfire disaster response. My heart fluttering with nervous excitement, I accepted the assignment and spent the next day packing everything – 54 pounds of everything I could possibly need. Better to be prepared, yes?

I departed from Logan Airport on Sunday morning, and the warm welcome in Arizona was a positive start to my first deployment. I met other volunteers at the baggage claim – from Missouri and Minnesota, who swapped disaster stories with pride and wisdom as we waited for our shuttle bus.

We arrived to headquarters – a vacant storefront in a shopping plaza, and quickly got to work. I was greeted by a handful of other communicators – public affairs specialists from California to Florida and many states in between. We made a game plan, grabbed dinner and turned in to our home-away-from home at the Yavapai College. For some of us, it was a dorm room. For myself and a few others, it was a staff shelter shared by volunteers and displaced residents.

The shelter at Yavapai College

The shelter at Yavapai College

Here I am interviewing Flo Hencken at the Individual Assistance Center in Yarnell.

Here I am interviewing Flo Hencken at the Individual Assistance Center in Yarnell.

I awoke slightly jetlagged the next morning, but happy to get going. I was paired with Stan Rosenzweig, a seasoned public affairs volunteer from Salt Lake City. He and I took a winding Route 89 to Yarnell, where we stopped at the Individual Assistance Center.

There, the Red Cross was working with several local and state agencies to address residents’ needs. I met Flo Hencken, a volunteer from Prescott who was directing residents where to go. I watched their interactions. The residents wore tired expressions as Flo explained the next steps, but their responses were always the same: “Thank you for everything. I’m so happy you guys are here.”

That response stretched to Wickenburg, about an hour south of Yarnell, where the Red Cross opened an additional shelter. About 14 residents remained there yesterday, and were entertaining themselves with computers and television when I arrived. I watched volunteers interact with these residents, and was impressed by the comfortable and easy repertoire between them.

Christine Moran, right, chats with Anne Ryman of the Arizona Republic.

Christine Moran, right, chats with Anne Ryman of the Arizona Republic.

Today I worked alongside Christine Moran, a communicator from Cleveland, at the Yavapai shelter. She and I stood ground to chat with any media that came by. A couple of reporters came through, asking about Red Cross efforts. We then made our way over to the campus performing arts center, where the public could watch a stream of the memorial. The Red Cross supplied bottles of water and boxes of tissues. As you can imagine, both went to good use.

Clients have expressed a lot of gratitude to the Red Cross, but what has surprised me is the praise from outsiders – the servers who bring us coffee, the gas station attendants who ring us up. Each of them has thanked me, thanked the Red Cross for everything it’s doing here. It’s been incredibly touching, and validates everything I’ve heard about Prescott: a tight-knit community with incredible resiliency. I feel fortunate to be here.

Volunteers gathered Monday night to prepare for Tuesday's memorial.

Volunteers gathered Monday night to prepare for Tuesday’s memorial.

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