“It’s a small thing that helps someone in a big way. It’s especially important right now,” stated Heather Vahdat, a Red Cross Board Member of the Central NC Chapter in Durham.
Inspired by her parents, Heather has been a long-time blood donor. Due to health concerns, her mother had received many blood transfusions over the years and her father routinely donated blood in his community. “Now, I have a family member with leukemia, and I would do anything to help him. While I may not be a match for him, I know I am a match for someone.” Heather recently decided to donate platelets and her second donation was made during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Before I donated, I thought ‘cancer does not quarantine.’ There are people fighting cancer and need platelets. I can help.”
Heather also serves as chair of the Biomed Committee with fellow board members, they strive to promote and influence successful blood drives and partners.
Red Cross Board Members like Heather play a critical role across Eastern NC. These volunteers serve as advocates in their communities, strategic advisors, and connectors to philanthropic resources. From recruiting volunteers and blood drive partners, connecting communities to resources, and meeting with donors, Board Members are connected to every part of our mission.
Margarita Gonzalez, her husband, and eleven-year-old daughter have called Ocracoke home for several years. Ocracoke is an unincorporated town on the southern end of Ocracoke Island, with nearly 950 residents. After taking the ferry to the island and driving towards the town, you can see beach drifts and smell the ocean in the air. However, as you get closer to town, you start to see large piles of debris and household items alongside the road. A reminder that in September 2020, Hurricane Dorian struck this seaside community and it will never be the same.
Once in town, you first notice people walking along the road, riding their bicycles, or driving by. Whether you are resident or passing by, every person you will greet you with a friendly wave of hello. A gesture, reminding you that this place is very special. It is there where the Red Cross met Margarita Gonzalez and her family.
During the first night that the hurricane really started to affect the island, Margarita and her husband invited their 27-year-old daughter and her two children to join them in their home, also shared with their eleven-year-old daughter. They thought it was the safest place for them to weather the storm. The following morning, they began to realize the real impact of the storm. At first, they asked themselves “is that it?” The storm seemed to pass them without major incident. Sadly, that was not the case. That morning Margarita’s daughter was in the kitchen feeding her children and her other daughter called their attention from another room. They could tell that there was a funny smell coming from the bathroom and when they looked closer, they began to see that water was starting to pour in from the vents along the floorboards.
The family immediately tried to save what items they could and bring them up the second level of the home. Everyone was trying to save something, including their pets – seven cockatiel birds, a dog, and a cat. Margarita’s husband saw the water come up to the level of the windows. He then went outside to the closest tree where he had tied a kayak earlier. He first put their young daughter and small dog named Princess into the kayak. He took her across the flooded street to a another house, which the family used as a rental home. This home was elevated and had a raised porch. Then he returned and during the second trip, he took their oldest daughter and her two children to the porch. Lastly, he returned for Margarita and the family cat. Margarita was concerned for her beloved birds, but knew they were as safe as they could be in the second level of the home.
Her husband had seen every one to safety. When making the trips across the street, he recognized the water had a strong, river-like current. The family was shaken, but thankful they were together and safe. They remained there until the flood levels receded. Over the course of the weeks that followed, the family and all members of the Ocracoke community did their best to manage without electricity as well as, taking apart their flood-damaged homes, walls, removing carpet, preventing mold, and salvaging whatever they could. This was happening, home after home, across the island.
Margarita and her husband had spent the last seven years investing in improvements in their home. It took seven years to make the home of their dreams but was now gone in a matter of moments. While they were extremely grateful for their lives, it was still heartbreaking.
While her family has some insurance to help with their recovery, it is only a portion of what is needed and has been a complicated process. Margarita stated that this is an island community that is very tourist-driven. The hurricane not only took away their homes, but also took away many people’s livelihood as so many businesses were heavily impacted. With little tourism business, there are very few opportunities to find work. For many of the men on the island, they have been able to find work helping with trades and rebuilding, but many of the women were working in the service industry supported by tourism. That work has been harder to come by, that is why the timing of financial assistance by the American Red Cross has been so impactful.
Margarita and her family are grateful to have received $2,500 in financial assistance to help aid in their continued recovery. She was so appreciative when the Red Cross contacted her and made the process of getting assistance clear and easy. Margarita said it was so helpful to go direct to the people and help. She has even helped many of her fellow community members understand what this assistance is and how the Red Cross can help. The Hispanic community on the island are important members of the community and tourism workforce. For the families that are eligible for this assistance, this helps them hold on a little longer. It may be enough time for them to be able to get back to work when tourism season begins.
When asked what she would say to Red Cross donors who made this gift possible, she paused for a moment to collect herself as it was clear this help meant so much. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Many people don’t know this island and the people who live here, just knowing that people care,” said stated, “I want to say thank you to every single person who has supported this community.” She knows that Ocracoke will never be the same. It was a close community before and remains so now. They have together to rebuild and be stronger than ever.
As you drive into the coastal town of Ocracoke on Ocracoke Island, you will encounter the local U.S. Post Office and you’ll notice people coming and going, getting their mail and packages. Once you’re in the office, it’s clear that Postmaster Celeste Brooks and her colleague Melissa Sharber know every person in town and welcome every visitor as if they were a local friend. On a busy Monday afternoon, the Red Cross spoke with them about their experience on the island during Hurricane Dorian.
After living on the island for fifteen years, Celeste thought she had seen it all and weathered many storms and hurricanes. However, she had never quite seen anything like Hurricane Dorian. This devastating storm was the worst thing to ever happen to her family. When her home began to fill with flood water, she and her two children, ages twelve and fourteen, rushed to the attic. They tried to salvage as many items as they could, but it was unbearable to see so much lost so quickly. The family was rescued and fortunate enough to receive a temporary place to stay, but most of all, thankful to be safe. Celeste would say everyone was knocked down, but after that everyone pulled together and started to do what needed to be done.
On Friday there was flooding, but by Monday mail was being brought to the island by ferry; a sign of some normalcy amongst the damage and chaos. Along with homes, the post office and many businesses were flooded. As the community began to pull itself together, the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department became a hub for communication, meals, volunteers, and distribution of resources. In those initial days, Celeste and Melissa were there too, helping however they could and still delivering the mail – along with hope and comfort of a smile.
Melissa and her family have lived on the island all her life. During Hurricane Matthew, she said it was alarming when the water came as high as her fence. Hurricane Dorian truly scared her when the water came into the house, as they did not have access to an attic to escape to. They decided to wade through the water to a family member’s house which was elevated. After the storm passed and the water receded, it was time to move forward. Although shell-shocked, Melissa and her husband began the process of salvaging what they could and then began tearing out all the water damaged areas of their home.
Celeste describes the Ocracoke community as one big family. “Although there are challenges, when tough times come, we all stand with each other and do what is necessary to move forward.” They have found a way to get things done, but there is still work ahead.
Prior to Dorian, Celeste had seen the Red Cross provide meals and resources but had not received services directly. The town of Ocracoke is a very resilient community and its members take care of each other, but they cannot do it all. Celeste admits the Red Cross and the community partners that have been supporting the recovery efforts on the island have been a blessing.
At the Ocracoke post office, there is incoming mail – envelopes of all shapes and sizes. It is a reminder of all the Red Cross donors who addressed their own letters and sent donations to Red Cross to help support the Hurricane Dorian relief effort. Those donations are continuing to support the recovery on Ocracoke Island.
“Thank you, even though the words are not enough, you do not know the blessing that you have bestowed on all of us. The kindness and generosity of people amazed me, I don’t even know how to put it into words. I am speechless at the kindness of strangers, the care and concern, just how much they did for people they don’t even know.” Celeste said the financial assistance provided by the Red Cross has been so critical to helping families hold on a little longer as their homes are repaired, the businesses reopen, and people can return to work.
As Celeste and Melissa consider what has been lost in their town – and on the entire island – they know hope abounds in their community and the recovery makes progress every single day. As they move their lives forward, they are certain that the community will grow stronger and are thankful for donors that made those steps forward easier and more bearable.