Donning the Red Vest

I stand in silence and internalize the scene around me. Wind runs through the metal wind-chime. Funny, considering minutes ago three fire trucks lined the street and ambulances made themselves audible with their recognizable whine and drone. I see eight board-up companies bidding for Mr. James’ business. A child runs on the street, unaware of what ensued in the salmon colored brick home in Garfield Park.

Today, I experienced what a classroom cannot teach, a business plan cannot dictate, and what a boondoggle meeting in Hawaii cannot accomplish. Today, I became aware of what it really means to be a part of the Red Cross. Today, I responded to my first fire with the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago

In the white Ford Explorer emblazoned with the Red Cross logo, I sat with anticipation. What am I going to see? Am I cut out for this? Where are we going? All of these questions ran through my mind with Usain Bolt-like agility. When we arrived on the scene we were surprised to see three fire trucks, an ambulance, and three police cars on the street. This has got to be more than just a single home fire, I thought. Jackie, Lauren, Cary, and I arrived at the scene and began to look for the damage. From the outside of the two-story house it was unclear as to how bad the damage was. We waited for the all-clear by the Chicago Fire Department before we stepped into the soot filled home.

During this time, we met Robert James and Loistene Smith, a married couple who live with two grandchildren, Latijia and Josh, and Loistene’s 22 year old daughter Precious Yarbrough in the home that caught fire earlier that morning. It was amazing to see how many people came by their house today to lend them support. Even a school bus driver maneuvered his way down the narrow street to stop and ask Loistene if she was alright. Luckily, everyone was able to escape from the home before the fire got out of control. Their basic necessities and valuables however, were not so lucky. After what felt like an eternity we were granted access to the home, and we soon realized the amazing extent of damage.

I stand in silence and internalize the scene around me. A soiled and soot covered teddy bear under a burned down bunk bed. A fedora hanging on the wall next to a family portrait of Martin Luther King Junior’s family. A gold necklace with a heart pendant motionless on a desk that is black and dusty. Metal screws, wood pieces, peeled-back wallpaper. The soot, dripping down from the one white wall left in the home, is everywhere. I can smell the smoke. I can taste the smoke, on the tip of my tongue and in the back of my throat.

I re-engage with what’s going on around me. We walked through the home and finally got an accurate assessment of the damage. As our Disaster Services coordinator talked with the family, Loistene’s grandson became eager to play. He egged Lauren and I on to play with him, and soon after we were running after each other up and down the street and playing hide and seek.

In the United States, the Red Cross responds to more than 63,000 fires each year. That’s 170 fires a day, and to put that into perspective, the Red Cross responds to a fire every 8 minutes. Here in Chicagoland, the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago responds to 3-4 fires daily, and provides the victims of these disasters with not only logistical support, but emotional support.

Today, although I may not have stopped the fire or heroically rescued the children from the blaze, I walked away from that house knowing that I did something amazing. The opportunity to be a part of someone’s healing process is a privilege. Sporting the Red Cross emergency vest is a privilege. I am inspired by the events that unfolded today. I am happy that I was there to lend support to the family when they needed it, and I am even happier to be a interning for an organization that is dedicated to the welfare of those in its immediate community, and the world over.
I sit in silence and I internalize the scene around me. A desktop computer and a keyboard. Notes in a black portfolio. I am an intern and volunteer for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. My name is Zachary Zimmerman, and I am a Red Cross Communicator.

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