As flames lit up the dark sky on a September night in downtown Bellefonte, residents of the historic Hotel Do De watched the destruction of their home and all of their possessions.
As the fire raged, Centre County United Way partner agencies, including the American Red Cross, were already on the scene, making plans to shelter the 27 individuals directly affected by the tragedy.
In the hours that followed, Red Cross workers met with each family to assess its disaster-related needs and to ensure that each had a safe and warm place to stay, food, clothing, any necessary prescription medications and any other essential items.
Red Cross disaster mental health workers were also available to counsel the residents.
In emergencies like the Hotel Do De Fire, agency collaboration is essential to the recovery effort.
The Centre Communities Chapter of the American Red Cross and many of the United Way agencies belong to the Community Safety Net, a local coalition of organizations that respond to crises.
Agencies in the safety net assisted the Do De residents in a variety of ways. One important approach was the creation of a “one-stop shop,” where local agency representatives came together in one location to enable clients to meet easily with each agency that could provide services. The agencies cooperated to avoid any duplication of services.
Catholic Charities is a perfect example of a United Way partner agency that frequently participates in this local service-center concept.
Red Cross responds immediately to help clients get through the first few weeks after a disaster, and Catholic Charities often meets clients later in the process to provide more targeted assistance.
That assistance could come in the form of helping clients with expenses that pose a problem as a result of a disaster but may not be an immediate need. Additional counseling could also be provided to help clients as they continue on their road to recovery.
What does all of this mean in human terms?
While still in the shelter, with a few tears rolling down his cheek, one resident said: “I am so appreciative of everyone in the community who has helped me. I wanted to send each one a thank you note. Then I realized that I no longer owned a pen or pencil or a pad of paper.”
The simplest things are often the most important.
Today, that man lives comfortably in his own apartment, which he has been able to furnish thanks to a caring community.
Another person moved from the shelter to a new residence, but the trauma of the fire remained. Difficulties paying rent followed. Catholic Charities stepped in and provided help with the rent and additional counseling.
Today this individual has a new job and is able to pay rent on time.
United, we can respond to disasters that affect our neighbors.
Virginia Brown is the chapter executive with the Centre Communities Chapter of the American Red Cross.