Sunday, September 26, 2021

Deploying to Louisiana with the Red Cross

One of my "bucket list adventures" for 2021 has been to deploy with the Red Cross.  Most of my "adventures" have been pleasure trips..  maybe getting out of my comfort zone to do something fun or challenging.  Rarely has my "adventure" really helped someone else, so I'd been looking forward to doing a volunteer trip.

The volunteering I'd done with the Red Cross had been virtual because of Covid, and, like the rest of the world, I was itching to get back to working with people "in real life."  After getting the vaccine, I did all the training for "Mass Sheltering" and marked myself "available" knowing there was a lot of need right now with fires and hurricanes.

I was very excited to be called to help at a shelter in Louisiana! I was called on a Tuesday and by Thursday morning I was on a plane landing in Baton Rouge.  Typically, volunteers fly out the next day, but I asked for an extra day to prepare. I had to review all the processes and guidelines, but was quite amazed at how quickly I was able to get my flight, "mission card" (on which I could charge approved expenses), and instructions on what to do upon arrival.

Arriving at headquarters

Another volunteer met me at the airport and we shared a ride to American Red Cross Headquarters in Baton Rouge.

After checking in, I went to a big conference room where there were groups of people organizing all the sheltering sites, figuring out how they would be staffed.

Flip charts with lots of sticky notes was a very familiar sight for me, an Agile coach. These are typical planning tools in Agile environments. Agile is all about planning for the unknown and adaptability, with lots of last minute updates.  There certainly is a lot of that going on here!  They even have twice daily "stand-up" meetings, so I felt certain this was an Agile environment, but when I asked someone, he had no idea what I was talking about, so..  while I'm sure many of the practices here were influenced from Agile, it's not so prevalent that volunteers are familiar with the frameworks.

Anyway, it did bring back the excitement I used to feel back when I worked in mission critical situations at work (these were mostly due to computer outages). 

I was very impressed with all the operations that were going on throughout the building.  There was a cafeteria that cooked up hot meals for everyone working in the building and any volunteers who were there, so the night of my arrival, I was treated to delicious jambalaya! Yum!

There was also a transportation department to help coordinate and shuttle all of us volunteers to the various locations and shelters.   That first night, I met a few others who had just arrived and we were shuttled to a local hotel and then back to headquarters in the morning.

Setting up a staff shelter in Houma, Louisiana

The next morning, a group of 6 of us drove in two vans from the Baton Rouge Headquarters to Houma, Louisiana with the task of setting up a new "staff shelter."  A "staff" shelter is a shelter that will house volunteers.  There are already some other client shelters in operation in Houma, a place that was hit very hard by Hurricane Ida.  There's work being done to consolidate and close some shelters and open others.

We arrived at this empty warehouse and unloaded supplies and set up the cots to provide a facility for the volunteers in the area.

When you sign up for Mass Sheltering you can pick to either work the day shift (7am - 7pm) or the night shift (7pm - 7am). I chose day shift, of course and was relieved when that was quickly accepted.  During your shift, you go to the client shelters to help those who have been displaced with whatever they need.  

There was a new client shelter being set up as well that we went and visited, as well as a client shelter that was very full and busy. (I didn't take any pictures because I want to respect the privacy of the clients.)

Seeing the devastation in the area was shocking and sobering.  The seasoned volunteers talk about hearing the stories from the locals and the bonds that form from listening.  I'm looking forward to working at a client site and hoping I can help.  I haven't gotten to do that yet, because...  I got sick. :-(

Covid concerns

I'm really impressed at how safety-conscious the Red Cross is and how strict they are with safety protocol around Covid.  Regardless of vaccination status, we all are reminded that we must wear our masks over nose and mouth at all times and socially distance.

I started feeling those initial sore throat tickles as soon as I boarded the plane. 

"I'm just being paranoid" I thought. It's so typical that I feel sick whenever I'm nervous about getting sick!

But by Saturday morning, there was no denying it, I had a bad cold. 

I told my staff supervisor and I was able to get a quick test which came up negative, so I felt optimistic but the resident nurse said a PCR test was necessary, which would take a few days to process.

The nurse came to pick me up in Houma and drove all the way to New Orleans where I've been isolating in a comfortable hotel. She also drove me to the Walgreens pharmacy to get the test and we'll have the results by Tuesday afternoon. 

I've been feeling guilty for sleeping in a hotel while the rest of the team has been working long days, sleeping in the shelter at night.  The people I met on that first day have been calling and checking on me, telling me the stories of working in the field.

I was hoping I might be able to do some virtual work while I was isolating, but still waiting on both getting new logins and having anyone who needs help.  I know from my career in IT.. sometimes explaining a task to a short-term newbie is more trouble than just doing the work.

The good news for me is that other than a cold, I'm not very sick. I don't have a fever and I've been careful about masking up, so I had felt quite certain I would be Covid-free.  However, this morning I got an email letting me know that one of my friends who I'd had dinner with last week had tested positive, so...  now I'm not so sure.  Until I get the results back, I'm glad Red Cross is treating it seriously and treating me very well.

In usual Agile fashion, here's what's gone well, what could be better, and what I might do differently:

What went well:

* Volunteers: Every single Red Cross volunteer I have met is AMAZING! This is such a generous, kind-hearted tribe! You don't hear a single complaint from anyone!  This is so different than the stereotypical entitled traveler who needs to have everything quite perfect.  These people are adaptable and patient and do what needs to be done. I'm inspired by the givers, the leaders, and the teamwork.

* Leadership: There's a 15-minute virtual "daily standup" on Microsoft Teams every day at 8am and 6pm. These meetings are very organized where the leaders give updates and pass along documents with phone numbers listing the current set of supervisors.  I'm truly impressed with the leadership and the organization of the massive efforts going on, primarily run by volunteers.

* Being cared for: I am so moved at the care and thoughtfulness with which I'm being treated despite really feeling embarrassed about being sick. I came here to help and right away, I'm the one who is getting cared for. Everyone from the people I shared rides with, sheltered with, to the nurse who shuttled me around.. have wished me a quick recovery. Even though I'm embarrassed about not working, they are thanking me for speaking up and getting tested. I so appreciate that.  And I am SO grateful to be able to sleep in a warm bed while I'm recovering.

* Just doing one deployment is wonderful training. Being a newbie, I'm learning all the acronyms and terminology, inspired by the long-timers and regulars.  Even though I've listened to and read everything from the videos, power point presentations, and documentation, actually experiencing it is where the real training lies.

What could be better:

Sleeping for one night in a shelter helped me have a new appreciation for all those clients who don't have the luxury of having a home.  Since this was a brand new shelter, we didn't have pillows yet and the lights were left on all night so people wouldn't trip.   Because of my cold, my nose was really stuffy and I was trying hard to stifle coughing so that I wouldn't keep people awake.  Having to wear the mask while I tried to sleep was necessary, but very uncomfortable.  I was so cold and couldn't sleep at all.  

What I'd do differently

* Well.. I hope the test will come back negative and I'll be able to actually work at the client shelters as planned..  Then I'll have a better idea of what I'd pack differently or do differently for another deployment. I bought some Nyquil so that should help me sleep.  And, hopefully, we'll have some pillows and I may stop at Walmart for a soft blanket!

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Ultimate Adventure Awaits

At 88, Dee has had many an adventure. She's traveled the world, raised 5 children, and now, as she sits regally and perfectly groomed in the comfy chair in her room at the assisted living facility, she's a bit impatient.

"The doctor said I had 2 months to live and it's been 2 months and 3 weeks. I'm past my expiration date!" 

Her quips about dying don't stop there. "I let Robi cut in line, but I'm next!" she says. Her sister, Robi, died recently, just 3 weeks after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Dee had been on advanced hospice and hadn't expected to outlive Robi. 

Dee has lost 3 of her 5 children, a husband, and a second long-term partner. She has been through more grief than anyone should have to endure. 

She wants to be next.

As I sit and talk to this spunky woman, the woman who hosted my wedding reception,  the woman who always called herself my "fairy Godmother," the woman who I've known and loved for close to 50 years, it's hard to imagine life without her.  She's so full of life even now, during these final days.

Three months ago, the doctors told her that her heart and kidneys are failing her and there was nothing more they can do.  Her reaction to that? "Sounds about right."

I marvel at her sense of humor. She's joking about dying and doesn't seem the slightest bit scared, sick or in pain. She doesn't even seem old! She sounds exactly like the articulate, educated, irreverent, opinionated, vivacious delightful woman I've always known! How could she possibly be dying? 

I imagine myself being told these are my final days and I'd be petrified. 

I happen to know that Dee prays a lot and I think her faith is playing a part in her acceptance of her imminent death,

"How are you so calm, Dee? Is it because of your faith?" I ask her.

"Oh, no. How can any of us be so bold as to claim we know what happens after we die. I don't believe in Heaven and Hell. They would both be so overcrowded," she jokes.

I pressed on. I wanted to understand this lack of fear so that maybe I could be as calm when my turn comes.

"You aren't at all afraid?" I asked.

"Afraid? My dear! It's a new adventure! It's the ULTIMATE adventure!"

And then a lightbulb clicked on for me! I get it now! Dee is not afraid because she loves new adventures. She's not afraid of the unknown. She's excited about finally unraveling the mystery of what happens after we die!

Unfortunately, I'm not like that.  I'll undoubtedly be scared to death (and of death) when I'm dying. But I will remember this conversation with Dee. And I'll think: "Yeah, thinking of death as an adventure is not working for me." 

Dee.. you're still on this earth and I can't imagine it without you, but I know you will be amazing as you embark on that next ultimate adventure.