By Michelle Mesa, American Red Cross

We prepare for hurricane season, stock our homes with food and water before the streets flood but what do we do when a fire alarm goes off in the middle of night? How might we manage the reality of being alright one moment and without a home the next?

This is indeed the reality for 35 Houston area apartment complex residents who were stripped from their homes due to a recent fire. Although firefighters were able to contain the blaze from spreading to other buildings in the complex, smoke and water damage destroyed the rest. Those who found themselves without a place to stay were given temporary shelter by the complex but had to relocate when they were unable to get electricity.

Marlene Torez
Marlene Torez and daughter Brianna

American Red Cross volunteers responded with boots on the ground. First, they provided water and blankets to residents in need, including a young mom, Marlene Torez, who was sleeping in her car with her six week old daughter, Brianna. Once the Red Cross received word the victims did not have adequate temporary housing, the Acres Home Multi Service Center opened its doors for a Red Cross shelter. Caseworkers and other volunteers were standing by, ready to help provide relief. However, none of this would have been possible without one incredible neighbor, Perla Licon.

When the alarm sounded in the middle of the night, Perla grabbed her four kids from their beds and rushed them out of her apartment. It was only later she realized she did not have shoes or clothes for her children. What’s more, she wasn’t alone—other bewildered families found themselves outdoors without adequate clothing or shelter. Perla and Marlene met each other that night, bound together by a situation neither thought would happen to them.

“I am one of the only people in my community who speaks English and I was calling everywhere trying to get help,” Perla recalled “That’s when someone gave me the number to the Red Cross. They kept calling to check in and to tell me they were on their way, so I could tell my neighbors,” she said. Perla’s call to 1-800-RED CROSS made it possible for the disaster action team to respond.

Upon arriving at the shelter, Perla, her children, Marlene and baby Brianna were greeted by Red Cross volunteers who made them feel welcome. They covered Brianna in a clean, fresh blanket, and, as Marlene held back her tears, gave the baby her very first toy—a stuffed Mickey Mouse donated by Disney. Relieved to know they were in a safe, clean place, Perla made time to encourage neighbors to visit and accompany Marlene and little Brianna—who had been coughing the night of the fire—to the doctor.

“I was so touched by how we were treated by Red Cross and partner volunteers. For example, L.I.F.E. Houston gave Marlene a month’s worth of diapers and formula for her baby,” said Perla.

Like Marlene, many of her neighbors did not know who to turn to for help. It was Perla’s phone calls, encouragement and tenacity that made it possible for the Red Cross to assist many who were affected. No one knows when a disaster will happen to them but if everyone is as selfless and supportive as Perla, maybe the road to recovery is one you won’t have to walk alone.