Why You Couldn't Help This Week: A Reflection on Service and Wildfires

Trained Volunteers at the Red Cross Shelter at Escondido High School. Photo credit: Maggie Buckenmayer, Red Cross volunteer

Trained Volunteers at the Red Cross Shelter at Escondido High School. Photo credit: Maggie Buckenmayer, Red Cross volunteer

This week, wildfires raged across San Diego. They forced thousands out of their homes while structures burned to the ground and fire crews battled the smoke and flames. In the midst of this, I spent Thursday morning at a Red Cross shelter, turning away people who showed up to help. And this was a problem because I still needed many volunteers.

The past few months, I’ve worked with the American Red Cross to train community members as shelter workers. We’ve partnered with congregations to equip their members to respond in a disaster situation. When disaster hit this week, we called these groups and sent them to shelters to set up cots, serve food, and comfort their neighbors.

I turned away more people on Thursday morning than the total number of attendees at last Saturday’s training course.

People want to help. People want to serve. People see their neighbors in need and they want to respond. Yet a spontaneous reaction to a disaster can only yield so much assistance. To serve with the Red Cross, you have to train ahead of time so you are certified and so the Red Cross can rely on its strong volunteer base. I’ve been explaining this to churches and temples and community groups for a few months and while some amazing and wonderful people have responded, many have not expressed interest because it doesn’t seem like an immediate need.

I’ve watched volunteers come in and out of the Red Cross offices, logging hours on the computer, teaching classes, and re-stocking the warehouse. These are not sexy service activities. And yet these are the people who saw the need in advance, and who committed their energy toward preparation because they knew it would be necessary when disaster struck. This week, these were the people on the front lines of the response efforts.

Serving our neighbor can require more than an impulsive response. It may look like having gift cards on hand when you’re approached by someone asking for money. It may look like getting to know your elderly neighbor so they know they can call you when the land in the hospital. Or it may look like a Saturday morning spent in a training class, before disaster strikes.


What is the role of preparation in serving our community?

How can you pray to anticipate the needs of others?

Where might you be needed to serve in the future? How can you prepare for that now?


Scripture: Proverbs 27:12 (NLT) 

A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions.

   The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.

Further Exploration:

Train to serve as a Red Cross Shelter Worker (email sophie.callahan@redcross.org for details)

Begin volunteering regularly with an organization so they can rely on your efforts

Learn your community and anticipate the needs of your neighbors

Let your church know they can call you in an emergency

Carry gift cards or care kits for people who ask for money