The red of their vests radiates in times of crisis — a beacon of hope to those unexpectedly thrust into devastation and tragedy.
But when a gunman walked into Emanuel AME Church last month and peppered parishioners there with bullets, Red Cross Regional Chief Executive Louise Welch Williams instructed volunteers to strip off those vests in response to what she described as “a different kind of disaster.”
“This wasn’t about us,” she said. “It was out of respect for the families and the community. We were there to help and to care.”
Nearly 200 volunteers maintained a constant presence in the days that followed the massacre, setting up posts at the TD Arena during a vigil there and at funerals for all nine victims. They traveled to the Statehouse as mourners paid their respects to Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s 41-year-old pastor. And they trekked to the Ravenel Bridge when upwards of 20,000 people formed a Bridge to Peace Unity Chain to counter the shooter’s reportedly racist intentions.
Their goal was largely two-fold: To hand out cold bottles of water to passersby as temperatures soared into the 90s, with heat indexes climbing into the 100s, the week of the shooting with little relief. And to offer emotional support to those in need.
In all, volunteers distributed some 61,000 bottles of water, 1,000 crisis intervention literature packets and completed more than 360 one-on-one emotional crisis support sessions, according to Red Cross spokeswoman Jennifer Heisler.
The removal of the vests aided in their response by making volunteers appear more approachable, Welch Williams said.
Welch Williams recalled trying her best to blend in while passing out bottles of water inside of Emanuel AME during one Sunday service in the shooting’s wake. She walked out of the service having never felt “so hurt and still so loved” in her life, she said.
“I think people just needed to know that someone else cared. ... The bottle of water was, of course, needed for hydration, but it was symbolic of hope and that people cared,” Welch Williams said.
Jim Calhoun, 68, of Mount Pleasant volunteers along with his wife, Ann. Glancing only a portion of the headline on his folded newspaper hours after the shooting, Calhoun assumed that the gunfire had erupted elsewhere. He said he was “appalled” as he began to piece the details together.
“And for someone so young to be filled with so much hate — I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it,” Calhoun said.
The mourners and other community members he encountered were “overwhelmingly appreciative” of the bottles of water he handed them during the “brutally hot” days.
They were received, he said, mostly with hugs, and folks saying “thank you and God bless you for being here.”
“Hopefully, I was watching history being made. What started out as a heinous, criminal act really seemed to galvanize the community and pull it together in an overwhelmingly positive way,” Calhoun said.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.