California Wildfires Paradise Lost (copy)

Photo news reporters stand in an area burned by a wildfire, in Paradise, Calif. on Nov. 13, 2018. Most homes are gone, as are hundreds of shops and other buildings. The supermarket, the hardware store, Dolly-O-Donuts & Gifts where locals started their day with a blueberry fritter and a quick bit of gossip, all gone. The town quite literally went up in smoke and flames in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California history. AP Photo/John Locher, File

Millions of people traveled during the Thanksgiving Day weekend. Very few likely witnessed and experienced a journey such as Nona Mason.

The 76-year-old great grandmother just returned from California. The Ladson resident and Red Cross volunteer spent almost two weeks helping victims of the Camp Fire near Sacramento.

We’ve all seen those images of blackened cars, singed to the metal. Structure after structure, burned to the ground. The thick, choking smoke is mostly gone, but entire neighborhoods no longer exist as modest ranch homes and mansions were reduced to smoldering embers.

We’ve witnessed weary firefighters trying with all their might and know-how to fight the flames, and we also saw cadaver dogs search through the ashes for a loved one's remains.

This was the backdrop into which Nona Mason left her own home and husband, to offer support and hope to people on the other side of the country.

Mason, a volunteer with the Red Cross for two years, is always ready to go. “I keep a backpack with some clothes and my make-up and toothbrush always packed. I’m ready to go,” Mason says. Why does she do it? “I enjoy helping people.”

While she’s relatively new to the Red Cross, helping people is something she’s accustomed to doing. She worked as a volunteer for 11 years with Summerville Medical Center.

Volunteering with the Red Cross brought other opportunities both here and elsewhere.

Support system

When Nona leaves for a two-week deployment such as the effort in California, she leaves her husband, Sam, to fend for himself. “Hey, I stayed at home many times when Sam was in the Navy. I just tell him I’m going and he says call me from the airport when you get back.”

Sam was a chef in the Navy, so Nona knows he’ll always manage just fine until she returns.

During this most recent assignment, Nona was part of a team working aboard a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle called an ERV. Each day they delivered food to 350 people who were living in a shelter because their homes no longer existed. The air quality was extremely poor and the smell of smoke hung heavy.

The ERV is also equipped to provide blankets, cots and personal hygiene kits.

In addition to providing food, it’s not unusual for a volunteer to offer a listening ear or a sympathetic shoulder. “Sometimes, these folks just need to talk, to get things off their chest,” admits Nona.

Mason is also likely to use humor to address her challenges.

“You don’t know me,” she told me from California, “but I cut fool. I always have fun — life’s too short.”

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She then began to tell me about trying to take a shower in the college gymnasium where she and the other volunteers were staying. “I’m 5-foot-10 and people who install these shower heads must think every woman is 5-foot-3. You gotta be a contortionist to wash your hair,” she exclaims with a hearty laugh.

Volunteer virus

About three days after my first conversation, I called her in California once again to see how things were going. I quickly learned she and about 10 other volunteers had been removed from the shelter and placed under quarantine. It seems an intestinal flu had moved through their shelter and many of the volunteers were now sick.

“I’ve had so much Gatorade — I don’t ever want to see another bottle,” she told me. She was feeling better but believed she would soon be sent back home once she was cleared to travel.

Did that mean this particular effort was disappointing or non-productive? Not in her mind. “I still got to do something I’d never done before — work out of the ERV. It was still a good experience.”

People like Nona Mason consider themselves to be just common folks. It’s the care and support and hope they provide, though, that is so uncommon these days. Nona’s bags remain packed for her next volunteer experience.

It’s one thing to see a crisis or natural disaster and send money or wonder how you can help. It’s an altogether different level of concern to raise your hand, roll-up your sleeves and say "send me."

Reach Warren at peperwarren@gmail.com.

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