When the Ash Settles

Michelle has big, quiet eyes. When we pulled up to her home, it was the first thing I noticed. It was hard to imagine from her unassuming demeanor that she, in fact, had been the one who tried to put the fire out moments before it consumed her home. She ran out to escape the blaze.

“I thought I could put it out,” she told me. “But I just couldn’t, so I got out. I just got out.”

As she told me what happened, she held up her pants, which were clearly too big for her. She wore what looked like her father’s shoes, which she grabbed in haste as she ran out of the house. Soon, a friend, Letisha, came by to give her a change of clothes — flip-flops and khaki shorts that fit better but still hung off of her small frame. Broken glass covered the steps, so friends cautioned her to be careful.

She whispered to Letisha about how sad she was that she lost most of her clothes. Her Senior prom dress was destroyed.

Letisha responded, “Your clothes might be OK once they’re cleaned.” It was clear in Michelle’s eyes that she was thinking about the treasured pink and black dress she had recently worn to her Senior prom.

“And thank God for life. You lived,” Letisha added with enough enthusiasm to make Michelle laugh.

They asked about what the Red Cross does. I explained that, in Chicago, most of the disasters we respond to are fires. I told them that they were the 3rd family we’d helped today and it wasn’t yet noon. I explained how it is supported through donated funds and volunteers.

“I’d like to do that.” Letisha said to me. “I’d like to volunteer.” Michelle clung to her arm and smiled. She’d be a good volunteer.

I suggested that maybe they could volunteer together and gave them my contact information so we could talk more about it after the ash settled.

As I was about to leave, Michelle and Letisha unexpectedly… feverishly… hugged me.

On my office wall at the Chicago Red Cross headquarters, I have a quote posted that I read every day to remember my purpose here. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other,” it says.

I think Michelle and Letisha would agree.

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