By Vicki LaBelle, American Red Cross

Volunteers are the heart and soul of the American Red Cross. During times of disaster they come from near and far to give comfort and hope to those affected.

Red Cross shelter teams are often the first to interact with people displaced from their homes. Along with a safe place to sleep, they offer food and health services as well as emotional support. This component of Red Cross service helps ease the heartache and stress residents feel as they process what has happened and the uncertainty of what they will face in the days, weeks and months ahead.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s sweep through southeastern Texas, more than 23 Red Cross and Red Cross-supported shelters housed thousands of evacuees. The Forge for Families, in Houston’s Third Ward, was one such place of safety and refuge. The Red Cross managed the shelter in partnership with The Forge staff and volunteers.

The Red Cross shelter team assigned to The Forge was comprised of volunteers from eight states as well as from Cruz Roja Mexicana, the Mexican Red Cross. During the eight days the shelter was open, volunteers and residents bonded, creating a warm, friendly and family-oriented environment.

A disaster of this magnitude, however, also brings its share of challenges and heartache. Due to unprecedented flooding, some shelters were isolated for days. Getting supplies and other resources in to support them required creative problem-solving, teamwork and diligence. Shelter team members also heard dramatic stories of tragic loss, harrowing horrific evacuations and water rescue experiences.

The Red Cross shelter team at The Forge, along with facility staff and community volunteers, pulled together to meet the needs of evacuees in the face of adversity. The team worked long hours, and several were on duty for days before another Red Cross shelter team could be brought in to relieve them. Despite these obstacles, the team provided consistent and compassionate care to shelter residents with a smile and positive attitude.

On Saturday, Sept. 2, the remaining 40 residents at The Forge shelter moved to the megashelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, where additional services are available. The Red Cross shelter team from The Forge stuck with their residents all the way to the new facility and helped them to get settled as a group, lessening their anxiety.

“I am so very proud of this shelter team,” said Cortney Shatraw, a Red Cross disaster worker from eastern New York state who directed shelter workers at The Forge. “They rose to the challenge and remained focused on serving our residents, which speaks to their dedication and commitment to the Red Cross mission and those we serve.”

For their exceptional performance under exceptionally challenging circumstances, the team was awarded two Red Cross “challenge coins.” These special medallions, presented for extraordinary service, are a highly coveted form of recognition among Red Cross volunteers.

The team decided the coins will spend time with each member, shared across eight states and two countries, traveling through the mail. The coins will serve as a reminder of the importance and impact of the Red Cross mission and the time the team spent together serving the people of Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey.

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