LEWISTON –

She and her family were sleeping on a gymnasium floor at a California high school when John McElrath met her.

The Mexican family had been living in California, north of San Diego. The husband was a migrant worker at an avocado grove the next town over. The wife, who will remain unidentified, was a mother of four children. She carried the youngest, an infant, on her hip.

Their mobile home burned to the ground 20 minutes after they were evacuated. They were six of the more than half-million people forced from their homes by raging wildfires over the past couple of weeks.

The family slept on mattresses laid out for the dispossessed in neat columns on the gym floor of Valley Center High School, five rows across, 40 deep.

“Here she was, she had nothing,” said McElrath of Lewiston a volunteer with the local United Valley American Red Cross who was stationed in Southern California during the wildfires that swept across San Diego County.

Each morning, the 23-year-old mother would ask McElrath what she could do to help him, though it was he who had been there to help her.

Because she spoke fluent Spanish and English, he asked her to serve as an interpreter, a task she relished.

“She felt so empowered by this experience,” McElrath said. “That was amazing to me.”

McElrath, who works in Lewiston as a teacher, spent 17 days in California filling the role of client case worker. His job included finding resources, from food to clothing, for people displaced by the fires.

He returned to Lewiston secure in the knowledge that he’d helped people in crisis, something he’d been doing with the Red Cross for seven years. He also brought back memories of inspiring people he encountered.

“It certainly puts life back in perspective,” he said.

Edward Gray Fox Burgess, also of Lewiston, was dispatched by the local American Red Cross chapter to the scene of devastation.

Burgess, a member of the Nova Scotia Mic-Mac tribe, said he was recruited to help on the La Jolla Indian Reservation. Although he started as a client case worker, he soon was called on to do outreach. He went to people’s homes to identify their needs, handing out so-called comfort kits, including teddy bears, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products.

On the reservation, roughly one-third of the 156 homes were lost to fire, Burgess said.

He ate lunch with firefighting crews and scanned the vast horizon of smoke from atop Palomar Mountain, which has an observation platform, Burgess said.

Eric Lynes, director of emergency services at the local Red Cross chapter that serves five Maine counties, said he sent seven volunteers to California, with an additional 20 standing by. Fifty volunteers in all, including health care and mental health worker from Maine’s four Red Cross chapters, went to the region.

Lynes said the disaster relief organization is always looking for new volunteers who help victims of fires and other disasters.


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