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

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