Carmen and Hector Munoz arrived in the United States shortly after Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 storm, struck southwestern Florida in 2004. The husband and wife had just moved from Puerto Rico to Florida and they quickly experienced the devastating and damaging effects a hurricane can have on a community.
American Red Cross volunteer Carmen Munoz receives recognition for her efforts.
Photo: American Red Cross.
The damage caused by Hurricane Charley to their neighborhood led Carmen to join the Lee County Red Cross chapter in Fort Myers, Fla., as a volunteer. After her training, she was immediately put to work answering calls from Spanish-speaking community members seeking information about Red Cross services.
"When you see tragedy among your brothers and sisters in the community, the best way to thank God that you didn’t suffer is by giving back and helping those who have been affected by a disaster," Carmen said.
Rendering Help Among Diverse Populations
Lee County, Fla., has a population of nearly 600,000 residents. Roughly 16 percent are Hispanic. According to the Census Bureau, Lee County has one of the fastest growth rate of any Hispanic population in the United States.
In the past, the Lee County chapter had encountered difficulty in reaching out to the Hispanic population. Many people were new to the community, did not speak English and were not aware of the services Red Cross provided. In addition, the chapter did not have enough staff or volunteers who spoke Spanish to answer calls that came into the chapter.
Carmen, as a bilingual volunteer, would often answer many of those calls.
"I had so many sad calls where young children, probably five to six years of age, would speak to me in English; but in the background, I could hear their parents telling their kids in Spanish what they should say to me," she said.
Once she told the young callers to tell their parents she spoke Spanish, their parents immediately took hold of the phone.
"The moment I told people I spoke Spanish, they would begin to cry. They saw the sky opening up for them." Carmen recalls. It was moments like these that made Carmen decide to form a group to address the needs of the Hispanic community and to help Red Cross expand its services to this growing community in Lee County.
Carmen began recruiting bilingual volunteers, such as Lucy Diaz, Deborah DeJesus and Maria Bartram, to help the Spanish-speaking community learn about Red Cross feeding and sheltering services. Carmen’s husband, Hector, is also part of the group and helps with community seminars created to inform and educate Spanish speakers on preparedness and fire safety. In addition, members of the group serve as bilingual translators in shelters during disaster operations.
Spanish translators in the Lee County chapter in Florida have been a tremendous help at American Red Cross shelters during Tropical Storm Fay.
Photo Credit: Carl Hersh/American Red Cross
"Many people in this area live in trailers and know it isn’t safe to stay in them during hurricanes, but they don’t realize we open shelters or what to do in the event of an evacuation," says Hector. "In our trainings, we teach people this and the message is finally getting across to them. We created the Hispanic Affairs group because we saw too many in the Hispanic community putting their lives at risk and often going hungry because they were afraid to come to a shelter. Too often the Red Cross is associated as being a federal agency and, while we might collaborate with them on certain projects or in very-large scale disasters, we are an independent and neutral humanitarian agency."
During Tropical Storm Fay, Heidi Ruster, executive director of the Lee County chapter, noted "With Carmen leading the group, during this storm we noticed an increase in shelter residents, particularly among Hispanics."
Currently the chapter has about 50 volunteers. More are needed, not just in Lee County but in Red Cross chapters across the country.
"I joined the Hispanic Affairs group because I know that the Hispanics are a group that moves, new ones come and go, and there is a continual need to service this community. You need to constantly train and educate as new waves of immigrants arrive in the community. We need to help each other. The Hispanic population is growing everyday and we need to help each other as a community to move forward," says volunteer Lucy Diaz.
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of thousands of disasters across the country each year, disasters like Tropical Storm Fay, by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to victims of disaster. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster please do so at the time of your donation. Call 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.