Ray Henderson lost his wife in 2005. He felt alone and unsure and even mistreated at the time. From the depths of that loss, though, he sought to find ways to help others.
There was nothing to indicate he’d be much of an ambassador for any cause. The 67-year-old retired computer programmer admits that he was anything but a “people person.”
He was good at deciphering code and creating software, but that involved figuring out problems for which there were plausible answers. As for showing compassion or even just making casual conversation, that was a different matter altogether.
Why did he then, not quite two years ago, decide to volunteer for the Red Cross? And why is it that he recently returned to his home in North Charleston after three weeks in Oklahoma trying to help people whose lives were turned upside down
Since last August, Henderson’s trip to Oklahoma marks his seventh deployment to various disaster areas around this country.
There was flooding in Iowa, an apartment fire in Myrtle Beach and the havoc in the Northeast from a storm named Sandy. Different locations, but common problems as people tried to cope with the loss of life and property. Henderson just wanted to help, but until he joined the Red Cross, he didn’t know how.
Wearing a vest with a red cross emblazoned on the middle labels him as somebody who’s there to listen, provide direction and cut through some of the paperwork.
Volunteers are the heart of Red Cross and comprise 96 percent of its work force. Few really consider how they swoop in to areas hit by natural disasters and offer hope along with a helping hand.
Henderson was one of those skeptics until he quit viewing things from the outside. What’s it take to be a volunteer? Mostly a commitment of time along with a certain measure of compassion and generosity.
In Moore, Okla., 23 people died and 400 more were injured. In his third week of deployment, Henderson was emotionally spent.
He watched a father digging through rubble looking for his two children that his wife was holding when the tornado swept through their house.
He still gets chills when simply putting food in a box and presenting it to somebody who has lost everything and who wants to thank the Red Cross for being there. He struggles for an appropriate reply and usually counters with “It’s what we do.”
Wind, rain, fire
Last year, the Lowcountry Chapter of the Red Cross responded to 363 disasters. Most of those were single-family home fires. Henderson has been on the scene for a few of those. He’s also watched a woman look for her new stainless steel refrigerator in the aftermath of a tornado then unravel as she tried to thank him for trying to help.
As a case worker, his job is to provide information and guidance so assistance can be supplied.
Rule No. 1: Put the client first. If they need to talk, let them. Be considerate and compassionate. Henderson admits he had no clue about all this, but now he understands how valuable the presence of the Red Cross can be.
It comes with a price, though. As the days pass, the loss of loved ones, the mounting debris, the emptiness in the victims’ eyes, it all starts to take a toll.
Henderson is starting to wear down emotionally. But he also knows that once he gets back to the Lowcountry, his battery will recharge, he’ll grab his vest and let somebody know that he’s ready to go.
Like he says, “It’s what we do.”
Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577.