A week of helping victims of Hurricane Sandy has left three local women more appreciative than ever of their own blessings this Thanksgiving.
Kathie Michael, Christine Martinez and Kathy Mortimer, all employees of Pathways ResCare in Great Bend, traveled to Manhattan and Queens earlier this month, staying in shelters with hurricane victims. They were gone from Nov. 8-15.
ResCare provides services to area people who are physically handicapped or intellectually disabled. Nationally, the “ResCare On Call” program sends “ROC Stars” to disaster areas, and this year ResCare Inc. also has a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide care to any state where the president has declared a disaster.
Sherry Johnson, their supervisor, made the travel arrangements. When the three arrived on the East Coast, Martinez said, “It was kind of a culture shock.”
“We stuck out like a sore thumb,” Michael said. “As people who were not street smart.”
“It’s definitely the concrete jungle,” Mortimer said.
“We flew into Newark, N.J., and we were transported by shuttle to John Jay College,” Martinez said. The three didn’t realize they’d be staying in a shelter alongside the people they were helping – who numbered over 100. “We slept on Army cots and worked 12-hour shifts.”
The college gym held the cots, but the women had to walk across the street to another building to shower. Making the best of things, they decided to think of their time in New York as a slumber party.
The people they were helping came only with the clothes on their backs and maybe a small bundle of possessions, stashed beside their cots. The women handed out clothes, pillows and towels. A women from a housing project in Rockway showed Martinez a photo of the home she’d lost.
There was one evening when the three got to act like tourists, visiting Times Square. Then, on Veterans Day Martinez, Mortimer and Michael, now known to the shelter supervisors as “The 3 M’s,” were moved to another shelter, at York College in Queens. “It was a very bad area,” Martinez said. They were warned not to leave the shelter.
Again, they slept on cots. This time there were about 200 people, including patients from a psychiatric ward at a hospital, and the occupants of a nursing home, set up 15 to a room. They were so close together, Mortimer said, “if you rolled over you’d land on someone else.”
On task assigned to Martinez was to guard the mental patients who went outside to smoke, making sure no one wandered off. A man named Albert told Martinez his life story, and later told her, “I just want to thank you for coming here and helping us out.”
Some of the people they helped at the Queens shelter from a nursing home. While there were doctors and nurses available at all times, the Three M’s checked vital signs, helped people to and from the bathrooms, and gave sponge baths to those who were immobile.
Time after time, people in the shelter would talk to the volunteers about the hurricane. How they were moved from the first floor to the third as waters rose, and they felt trapped because they had no idea when help would arrive. How they wanted to go home.
“We spent a lot of our time providing emotional support, and we quickly became friends with everyone we met,” Mortimer said. “For being such a big city, not one person forgot our names.” Mortimer and Michael became known as “Kathy and Kathie,” or “The two Kathies.”
“They made us strong,” Michael said, “because we knew we had to help them, reassure them that everything would be OK.”
Now back in Kansas, all three knew they would see things a little differently this Thanksgiving.
“It was a great experience,” Martinez said, adding anyone who has the chance to help others after a disaster should do so. “It totally changes your life. It makes me thankful for everything that I have. I’m blessed.”
“It was an honor for us,” Michael said.
“An honor,” Mortimer agreed.
It was three women treating others as they would want to be treated. “If a disaster would happen to us,” Martinez said, “I would want the same thing.”