Yesterday was my first time as a Red Cross "captain" in charge of her own disaster response team. That meant I was in charge of driving the vehicle (they truly didn't think that decision through properly); I was responsible for the well-being and safety of my team (again, they had to be short on volunteers); and I was to make all of the big and final decisions (including how many hugs I deemed necessary for each storm victim). When the team assembled and we got into the vehicle I was asked by a timid voice in the backseat, "Do you know how to drive safely in the rain?"
(Because all our names started with "K" and I'm clever like that)
I only had about 45 minutes and it was pouring rain so I skipped the parts about it being a really hot summer in New York the July I was born and I passed over my headgear phase and botched haircuts. (They were too young to know the trauma of 7th grade when you ask for a "Rachel" and instead you get a mullet). I told them about the Nashville Flood in 2010 and how that's when I realized volunteering was my life's passion. I told them about the pure destruction and devastation that I witnessed but also the beauty (and itchiness) of sandbagging the Cumberland River. I told them about responding to fires in the middle of the night and singing old NYSNC songs with a girl in a shelter who was scared. I told them about Tuscaloosa and the tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011. I told them about the immense joy you feel when you help someone but how sometimes you go out to the truck to physically sob where no one can see you because your heart hurts so badly. I told them about my last deployment after Christmas and how I rang in 2016 inside a recreational center on a cot surrounded by tornado victims.
I told them all of these stories to let them know: Although I fear it on unhealthy levels... I will drive (and do so safely) in the rain. That this one day of volunteering that they signed up for was going to change their lives forever because you can't just do a day. Like a can of Pringles, once you start you can't stop. And how the destruction they were about to see for the first time would be the equivalent of a punch to the stomach and a slap to the face at the same time. But the only way to get over the initial shock is to walk through it, find someone, and hug the ever-loving-hell out of them. I told them to prepare them. I told them my story so they knew that the person entrusted with their safety and well-being (again, not the brightest idea) had been in their shoes before. I told them because in retelling my embattled history with Mother Nature... I reminded myself why I was wearing that red vest.
I did not tell them my story expecting to hear the words that came out of the backseat when I was finished... "Kristen, I don't know how old you are but you've lived a crazy life in the short time you've been on this Earth. And I think you're my new hero." I immediately let out a nervous and embarrassed laugh and said, "That's crazy talk. I'm 31 so I've had plenty of time to go head to head with disaster. I really want to be Kelly Clarkson when I grow up because she's one of my heroes. And I am pretty sure I will go through an entire First Aid kit before we're done out here today so I'm in no position to be anyone's hero. But you're incredibly kind. And I'm incredibly lost. Seriously. What town am I driving to again?"
Hero. That's a word used to describe police officers and firefighters who run towards danger while others run from it. That's a word used to describe members of our military who dedicate their lives defending our country. That's a word used to describe doctors and nurses who save lives and scientists who find cures. That's a word used by Mariah Carey in one of her greatest songs to date. I'm not a hero. A hero is fearless. I volunteer because I'm so incredibly scared of natural disasters that if I didn't put on the red vest I would never come out of my safe place. I'm not a hero. I'm a hot mess who thinks if she hugs enough people, hands out enough water, throws enough sandbags and sets up enough cots in a shelter that perhaps she can officially erase the scars that the Flood and the April 2011 tornadoes made. It's a coping mechanism. It's not heroism.
The destruction that I drove my two brand new volunteers into was both flooding and tornado damage. As we walked through the yards, stepping over debris (falling into puddles... seriously, I warned them), covering our noses from the scent of wet sheet rock and the fumes of chainsaws, I watched closely as they came face to face with their first storm survivor. I watched as they stood in what can only be called "a doorway" where once a house stood. I saw the tears well up in their eyes but they didn't let a tear fall. I heard them ask all the right questions and provide the correct answers as to how we could help and why we were there. And then I saw them reach out to hug the older woman who simply said, "I'm alive. We're alive. I didn't think we would make it but we did. So we're going to be ok. Everything is going to be ok."
As we walked away from what was once somebody's home, I asked the two girls, "Are you ok?" And they answered that they were overwhelmed but felt like they had just did something that changed their life. I simply told them that not only were they warned I would at some point during the day fall flat on my face but also that they wouldn't be the same people by lunch that they had been at breakfast. And as we walked up to the car, climbed into our seats and shook the rain off our clothes I looked in the rear view mirror and said, "That woman you just met... That's a hero."
The rest of the day went according to plan. We assessed damage. We drove down the wrong roads and made numerous u-turns. We handed out supplies and we administered hugs. We cursed the navigation system and we repeated, "Tell no one this happened back at headquarters, got it?" I tripped over debris and failed at walking on water and they took notes and soaked up all the on-the-field training they could get. And when our work was done for the day we headed back to headquarters. I looked at their faces. They were tired. They were hungry. And they were changed. Just like I knew they would be... Because I was.
In my 31 years on this Earth maybe I have seen more disasters than most. Maybe floods and tornadoes and Jim Cantore like to follow me around for no other reason than they truly have nothing better to do with their time or energy. If I think of my age and what I haven't accomplished yet I start to think I'm living life incorrectly (financial stability, a family of my own, lasagna in the oven rather than paperbacks, a published book, a 401k, and less band-aid usage). But then if I think of my age and what I have accomplished I start to think that maybe I'm living life my way. Where the unpublished book, the car seat-less SUV, the microwaved dinner, the coins in a coffee can labeled "savings" and the Cosco-sized First Aid kit are the perfect bookmarks to this chapter in my life. Chapter 31... (With Chapter 32 quickly approaching).
My family is filled with heroes that wear a badge or a stethoscope. I wear a red vest. I am not a hero. Heroes run into danger while I run into my safe place. Heroes give their all without seeking anything in return. I give my all but thrive on the feeling I get when I give a hug. I'm not a hero... I'm a survivor.