Hurricane survivor stays strong, looks to help others as Red Cross volunteer

Matilda Shanks has survived personal tragedies and two deadly hurricanes, but through it all, she has found strength in focusing on others in need.

Now, she wants to channel that passion for helping others as a volunteer for the Red Cross. After all, she says, during trying times, the Red Cross has been there for her.

Matilda Shanks
Matilda Shanks

After Hurricane Florence made landfall at Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14, eastern North Carolina was inundated with record flooding. Shanks, 45, of Chadbourn, N.C., in Cumberland County, went to Edgewood Elementary School, a Red Cross shelter nearby in Whitesville, when floodwaters rose around her home. But she put her time to good use helping other residents of the shelter.

“She stood out because she didn’t seem to let anything bother her,” said Betty Odiaka Baldwin, a Red Cross event-based volunteer who worked in the Edgewood Elementary shelter.

Shanks was there for other residents, listening and offering a shoulder to lean on.

“I smile and have a happy face every single day,” Shanks said. “Other people confide in me, talk to me.”

But she also threw herself into helping out at the shelter and did tasks that shelter volunteers did.

“She’s a very caring person,” Odiaka Baldwin said. “Really, you wouldn’t think she’s a resident in a shelter because she did so much.”

Shanks home damaged
Matilda Shanks’ home after Hurricane Florence.

Shanks and Odiaka Baldwin had met two years earlier, at a Red Cross shelter at the same school, during Hurricane Matthew. But they bonded during the weeks they shared after Florence.

Shanks opened up to Odiaka Baldwin about her past. In addition to living through Matthew, Shanks had survived the loss of two daughters years earlier.

The tragedy that struck before dawn on Feb. 1, 1996, remains vivid for Shanks.

“I was awakened about 4 a.m. to the sound of something banging,” Shanks said. “I thought someone was trying to get in.”

It was the sound of neighbors desperately pounding on the door of Shanks’ burning house. She and her daughters had moved in only three days earlier, and she didn’t realize the smoke alarms did not have batteries.

“I tried to get my children,” she said. “There was so much smoke. I was burned over 50 percent of my body.”

She was flown to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill for treatment.

In addition to losing her daughters, who were 16 months and 4 years old, Shanks was suddenly homeless.

“I lost everything,” she said.

But the Red Cross was there for her, she said. Volunteers visited and made sure she had everything she needed.

“Red Cross was so awesome to me at that time,” she said. “I was so thankful and grateful. They blew my mind.”

Shanks also credits her faith for keeping her strong.

When Matthew struck in 2016, no one expected the hurricane to be so bad, and her neighborhood wasn’t evacuated. But as the severity of the storm became clear with the rise of floodwaters, Shanks and her daughter Jay’Brehon, now 18, moved upstairs to keep dry. Shanks made sure to take her portable radio, and she rode out the storm with praise music playing.

“God is going to be God. I trust him no matter what,” she said.

Flooding caused by Matthew devastated eastern North Carolina, and Shanks said it took five months for water damage to her home to be repaired before she could move back in.

But now she has been forced out again, this time by Florence. Shanks initially returned to the shelter at Edgewood, and is now in a hotel, unsure when repairs to her home will be complete.

For Shanks, whose creativity has led her to be a decorator, poet, musician and gift basket designer, the uncertainty has been trying.

“It took a toll on me,” she said.

But in the midst of difficulties, she has signed up as a Red Cross volunteer.

“I could never go through life forgetting the people who have been there for me,” Shanks said.

That includes Odiaka Baldwin, who regularly checks in on Shanks at the hotel.

“We just made a connection,” Odiaka Baldwin said. “I think it will be a lifetime connection.”

Story by Michael White/American Red Cross

Three years after tornado takes home, couple joins Red Cross to help others

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Beverly and Reggie Riddick

For most, retirement usually conjures visions of travels, hobbies and uninhibited leisure. For Reggie and Beverly Riddick, retirement presents an opportunity to give back.  

In 2014, severe weather in North Carolina produced six tornados across the eastern portion of the state. One ripped the roof off of Reggie and Beverly’s mobile home in Elizabeth City, N.C. As the Riddicks surveyed the damage after the disaster, Red Cross volunteers met them in their suffering by offering water, temporary housing and connections to recovery resources.  

Additionally, the Red Cross covered the cost of two nights in a hotel so Reggie and Beverly could develop a plan for future housing. The couple said they were most impressed with the way Red Cross volunteers followed up in the days and weeks after the tornado.  

“That really left a warm spot in our hearts,” Reggie said.  

The experience with the destructive tornado produced lasting influences on the Riddicks. The couple said it strengthened their faith in God and it established a spirit of gratitude toward the Red Cross. 

About a year ago, the Red Cross re-entered the Riddicks’ lives. Reggie was reading the newspaper and saw information about a volunteer interest meeting.  

“Put it on your calendar, we definitely want to attend,” Reggie said to his wife of 17 years.  

When reflecting on that meeting, Beverly remembers feeling overwhelmed by the inviting attitudes of the volunteers. As a perfectionist, she appreciated that the volunteers emphasized mistakes are learning opportunities.  

Now, the retired educators channel their spiritual passion into service with the Red Cross’s disaster spiritual care team and disaster action team.  

“When we lost our home in that tornado, it was our spirituality that held everything together for us. It brought us closer together as a couple and it brought us closer to God,” Beverly said.  

The Red Cross aims to meet the short and long-term spiritual needs of those affected by disasters through providing accompaniment, compassionate care, individual and communal prayer, and appropriate ritual. Spiritual care team volunteers also connect clients to resources according to their individual beliefs.  

Professional or board-certified chaplains, disaster spiritual care providers with other voluntary organizations and endorsed leaders of local faith communities are eligible to submit applications to become spiritual care providers for the Red Cross. Reggie and Beverly are both ordained deacons at Riddick Grove Missionary Baptist Church (no name connection) in Belvidere, N.C.  

“We wanted to find a way to give back because we are very spiritual people and God wants us to serve others,” Reggie said. 

As spiritual care team leads, the Riddicks are working on compiling a list of local contacts who represent various religions to serve their diverse clientele. Reggie said he never wants differences of traditions to keep people from receiving the care they need especially in the aftermath of disasters.  

“I think it’s very important for people to know that God is still with them, whatever God they do serve,” Reggie said.  

When serving on their local disaster team, often responding to home fires, Reggie and Beverly comfort distraught residents by listening to their needs and offering encouraging sentiments. The Riddicks recognize that their experience with losing their home gives them the unique ability to empathize with clients. Reggie said people are much more attentive once they hear about their own history with disaster.  

In the past year, the Riddicks have responded to a handful of home fires, served as shelter feeding leads during Hurricane Florence, and attended virtual training seminars and in-person training workshops. They haven’t been volunteers long, but they have each already accrued more than 100 volunteer hours.  

“We just enjoy helping people, it’s a part of our nature,” Beverly said.  

The Northeastern North Carolina Chapter is grateful Reggie and Beverly have chosen to dedicate part of their retirement to giving back to the organization that helped them on their path to recovery.  

“We are thankful that the Lord has given us the commitment and desire to do it,” Reggie said.  

Story by Shelby Raymond/American Red Cross