Friday, January 18, 2013

A Shelter Story

"Ma'am?  There a lady over at the table there, I think she needs help."

I wouldn't have noticed her.  We had close to two hundred residents in that shelter and when dinner was delivered, most of them passed through the serving line and into the dining area.

She was elderly. Late 70's, early 80's, I guessed. Her hair was white and carefully curled, and she was wearing an old fashioned broach on her green sweater.  She sat in front of a half eaten meal, quietly sobbing.

I sat next to her and asked if I could help. 

"I'm sorry.  I don't mean to make a fuss."

"Can you tell me what's wrong?"

"I don't like it here.  I want to go home."

Her name was Jackie and she was alone.  A widow with no children. She'd been evacuated to one shelter before Sandy hit, then transferred to this one. She wasn't quite sure where she was, the neighborhood was unfamiliar, and she didn't know anyone here.

At first I thought she was "confused" (a polite term for early dementia) but as we talked I realized she was simply overwhelmed. She did fine in her own well-ordered world.  She had a nice apartment and she took the bus to church or to go shopping.  But here, in this over-sized room full of cots and strangers, she didn't know what to do.

She gave me her home address and I asked one of the local volunteers where it was.  One of the areas hardest hit. I didn't have the heart to tell her.  She said there was a cousin who came by and helped her sometimes but she hadn't been able to reach him.

I did what I could.  I asked her if she'd talked to the FEMA people yet?  She didn't know she was supposed to.  All those announcements had made no sense to her.  A local social worker came through and I made her aware of Jackie, but the next day someone different came.  I made a point of talking with Jackie everyday, making sure she understood what agencies were there and what paperwork she needed to fill out to get help.

Our shelter was getting smaller.  We had a mixture of evacuees and those who were simply without power, and as the power was restored our population dwindled. Soon this shelter would be closed and merged into another.  Who would look out for Jackie?

Then she was gone.  I'd been out delivering hot meals in one of the neighborhoods that was still in darkness and when I came back, her cot was turned on its side, signalling she'd checked out. I asked another volunteer what had happened.

"Oh, she finally reached her cousin.  He came and picked her up."

 I wish I'd had a chance to say goodbye.


Quote of the Day: It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little - do what you can.  ~Sydney Smith


26 comments:

Maria Zannini said...

We've only had to ask for help once and that's because we had three 80 foot trees on top of our house, no power, and no water. I can vouch for how confusing it is to know who to call.

You learn a lot of patience after a disaster.

I'm glad that lady found her cousin. You need family most of all after a disaster.

Thank you for doing what you do.



Gina Gao said...

It's great what you did with Jackie. I was extremely moved by this story.

www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

LD Masterson said...

Maria - Disasters are hard, as you know. I can't imagine going through one alone.

LD Masterson said...

Gina - Mine was a little thing. I'm often in awe of what disaster volunteer will do.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm sorry! But you were there for her when she needed someone.

Arlee Bird said...

The plight of some of the forgotten or neglected elderly is truly a tragic aspect of a wealthy country like the U.S. Here in L.A. I see some of the homeless who look rather old and I just can't imagine what that must be like. To be homeless and young would be bad enough.

Lee
A Faraway View

Carol Kilgore said...

Jackie probably wishes she'd had the chance to say goodbye and thanks to you, too. You did good :)

Tara Tyler said...

wow. i'm so glad she got thru to family. what a traumatizing experience that storm has been!

Angela Brown said...

What you may see as such a small thing - spending time and educating Jackie - is something so huge in the aftermath of a disaster.

I can not speak on what a person could possibly feel after something that traumatic, but my imagination can conjure some tear-jerking emotions. And to be alone in all of it adds to the internal turmoil.

Your kind words, your guidance were such a help to that lady. I tip my hat to you and all that volunteer when disaster strikes. Yours is the presence of hope when victims/survivors feel helpless in the dark.

Thank you so much for what you do.

LD Masterson said...

Alex - Sadly, if one of the other shelter residents hadn't pointed her out, her struggle might have gone unnoticed.

LD Masterson said...

Arlee - Too true. Our society has failed our elderly in many ways.

LD Masterson said...

Carol - To be honest, I'll bet she was so glad to get out of there, she never gave saying goodbye a thought. :-)

LD Masterson said...

Tara - And for many the nightmare is far from over.

LD Masterson said...

Angela - Thanks. I'm a very small fish in a very large sea of volunteers.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Even if you didn't say good bye, I bet she thinks of your kindness often.

Mason Canyon said...

What a touching story and a reminder that being there for a stranger in a difficult time can make a world of difference for them. You did a great job. Like your quote today too.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Linda G. said...

It may seem like a small thing to you, but I'm sure it was huge to Jackie. You were the proverbial candle in the darkness for her, and sometimes that's all we need to help us cope. :)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Do you have her address still?

LD Masterson said...

Susan - Perhaps. I hope the memories of everyone who helped her will offset some of the bad ones.

LD Masterson said...

Mason - When I went looking for a quote that fit the post (funny stuff just didn't feel right), I came across so many good ones about trying to make a difference, I think I'll be working more of them into my posts.

LD Masterson said...

Linda G. - Yeah, there was a lot of darkness out there, especially for people who were alone.

LD Masterson said...

Diane - I have the address of her apartment building that I'm pretty sure was destroyed. I thought of writing at Christmas and hope the Post Office had a forwarding address but then I thought she's probably trying to put the whole experience behind her. No point in bringing up bad days.

Mike Keyton said...

People talk alot about angels. I believe they exist. I also believe angels come in human form, guided by circumstances and perhaps something else. I was fortunate enough to help someone in his last year of dementia, and what I learned is that when you think you're 'giving' you are in fact getting much more in return.

Good job, Linda

LD Masterson said...

Mike - Taking care of someone suffering with dementia requires endless patience and compassion. I'm glad that person had you for his angel.

Maryann Miller said...

So glad that Jackie had you to help her through this traumatic time. And what good news that her cousin was finally located. I'm sure you still think of her and wonder how she is doing.

LD Masterson said...

Maryann - One of the best parts of shelter duty is the special people you get to remember.