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Shirley Hancock, 51, a volunteer with the local Red Cross for 4 years, is a shining light of hope to those that have lost their homes in disasters like fires and hurricanes. Hancock and other Red Cross volunteers provide blankets, food, water and personal care kits to families fallen victim to tragedy.
Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series intended to promote volunteerism in our community. There are more than 100 programs in need of volunteers. For more information, see the Volunteer link at daily-times.com.

Call it the nightmare before Christmas:

At two in the morning, fire breaks out in the home of a large, extended family. Within minutes, everything they own goes up in smoke. Even the Christmas tree and all the presents are gone.

The family has no one to help, nowhere to turn, when down the street comes a fully-equipped Emergency Response Van, driven by an American Red Cross volunteer.

"The first thing they get is a beautiful, warm afghan," said Donna Wade, San Juan Chapter Disaster Coordinator. "I've seen (families) come out only in their pajamas and no shoes."

"We give them personal care kits because they've lost everything, including their toothbrushes," Wade said. "Then, depending on their need, the caseworker can provide shoes, a change of clothes, food and lodging for three nights at a local motel."

"We even have an agreement with the Salvation Army to provide toys for the children, if they've lost their Christmas presents in a fire," Wade said.

Not many people know the Red Cross is there to help when fire strikes a local family yet, according to www.redcross.org, the majority of Red Cross disaster responses are house or apartment fires.

"I think we're a well-kept secret," Wade said.

"We don't self-deploy," she explained. "The police and fire department call us out. Families can refuse our help, and sometimes they do, but in the month of November, we were called out eight times on single family house fires."

Those eight fires left 45 people homeless, according to Wade. She added that in the first two weeks of December, two more homes burned, leaving eight people with little more than the clothes on their backs.

"We take care of immediate needs," Wade said. "Sometimes, it's just keeping the family calm so the firemen can do their job."

In addition to clothes, shoes and a place to stay, Wade said the Red Cross has agreements with the Salvation Army and local thrift stores to provide bedding, household items and basic furniture at no cost.

"One woman got all excited over getting a potholder," Wade said. "Just imagine, if you'd lost everything, even a potholder would be a big thing."

Family pets receive assistance, too.

"We partner with the Animal League," Wade said. "If the pet can't go with the family, Dr. (Joe) Quintana, will put them up temporarily and Animal League will pay for it."

"One time I was asked to put up a goldfish," Wade said. "I didn't know what to do. Luckily, the neighbors came through."

While most people associate the American Red Cross with major relief efforts like those following Hurricane Katrina, the organization's local work gets less recognition.

In her years as a Red Cross volunteer, Joy Ximenez has responded to over 22 disaster relief missions, including the Northridge earthquake in California, 9-11, Katrina and other hurricanes in the Gulf.

Responding to local tragedies, Ximenez said, is sometimes harder because the misery is closer to home.

"My heart goes out to everyone," Ximenez said. "A couple of years ago, I was called out on three house fires in one day."

Ximenez is one of five caseworkers who are ready to respond when disaster strikes. She has high praise for the San Juan Chapter and their sturdy little Emergency Response Vehicle, known affectionately as the ERV.

The ERV has seen action in the field, and has the scars to prove it. Deep gouges in the paint are souvenirs from trees downed by Hurricane Gustav.

One day, when Ximenez and fellow disaster volunteer Shirley Hancock were distributing hot meals from the ERV, a bystander asked why Farmington had what looked to be the oldest, most beat-up van in the Red Cross fleet. Ximenez was quick to correct him.

"I told him Farmington had the hardest and best working van in the fleet," Ximenez said. "When the newer vans were breaking down, ERV just kept going."

Keeping ERV ready to respond is not easy. Because the Red Cross receives no state or federal funds, the need for volunteers and donations is constant, according to Wade.

Saturday evening, the Chapter got an early Christmas gift in the form of a $10,000 check from Western Refining in Bloomfield. Bill Robertson, health and safety director for Western Refining said his company was pleased to help the Red Cross in its work.

While the check will help keep the Chapter's van loaded and ready, it won't get far without volunteers to stock it and drive it.

"I need a large number of volunteers to insure that I always have two people ready to go when we get the call," Wade said.

And whether it's a call from across the country or across town, Wade said, "When you get the call, you're not supposed to say no."

Elaine Martin: emartin@daily-times.com