In My Own Words – Sheryl Thompson

Sheryl is chair of the East Central Bay Chapter Board of Directors in Flint. She retired in 2020 after a more than 33-year career in public service as a strategic leadership executive and social worker with the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services. Last month, she was deployed for the first time as a mass care shelter associate at a Red Cross shelter in Fort Myers, Fla., to assist in the response and relief efforts after Hurricane Ian. Sheryl’s In My Own Words was told to David Olejarz.

“One of the things I think about is the fact I went through a myriad of emotions throughout my deployment. From sympathy, to empathy, to laughter, to compassion, concern – just everything. Literally throughout the day you see all of that. You have compassion when you hear stories about how people survived. They lost everything but they still have each other. I have sympathy because of the stories I heard about people who, while they survived, their loved ones did not. Some of their stories were funny, too, and they would make me laugh.  Despite the circumstances they still had a good sense of humor. I also met some amazing volunteers from all over the world and together we supported each other and became great friends.

“The experience was like none other. I’ve never talked to someone who survived a hurricane and lived to talk about it. Many times, the survivors just wanted to tell their story and wanted you to listen to what they had to say. I’ve been trained somewhat in mindfulness, so I learned to just attentively listen to them without interrupting. Sometimes after I just gave them a hug and thanked them for sharing.  Other times I asked them if they would like to be referred to Mental Health or Spiritual Care services.

“I had an idea of what to expect but nothing prepares you for seeing and hearing first-hand the devastation and loss suffered by the residents, as well as the collaboration of other organizations that were there to meet the needs of those in the shelters.

Volunteer Preparedness

“It was on a Saturday morning when I received the call that I had anxiously been awaiting after completing my training.  I was excited yet nervous to know that I would be deployed the next day for 14 days to serve survivors of a hurricane. 

“As the board chair, I not only wanted to talk the talk, but I wanted to walk the walk. I wanted to be able to see what deployment was like. As a way to give back and represent not only my chapter but my state, the Michigan region. Being able to help wherever I could. I’m retired so I have the time to be able to do that. I was made aware of many of the possible hardships and scenarios I may encounter from the extensive required training that was offered (it was really good).  What I appreciated from the training was to ask, listen and learn.  I kept that in mind while speaking with the survivors.  Both my husband and I have done mission work before so I had somewhat of an idea of what it would or could be like. 

“Packing was funny. Trying to figure out what you need and what you don’t need for 14 days. I think I packed and repacked 3 times (laughs). Even though I was going to Florida I knew I needed clothing for hot weather and air conditioning like long sleeve shirts and pants and some toiletries. I made sure I had phone chargers, extension cords, etc.   No other electronic equipment. Just my phone that is crucial during deployments for communication. I kept saying, what do I really need? No makeup. Just the essentials and some snacks. 

Heartbreaking Stories

“As a social worker you are used to seeing poverty, hearing stories of survival. Because of having been a foster care and protective services worker, I think that really helped me. Some of the things I heard, I wasn’t as shocked by. As a social worker, you have to listen in order to hear and pay attention to what the person is saying. You want them to be able to tell their story. And to be able to have that empathy for them. All that came into play.

“(Individuals and families) were very appreciative of the Red Cross and all that we do. Many of them said, ‘God bless you. Thank you for being here for us. We didn’t know what we were going to do.’ One gentleman told me he just wanted to be able to shave so were able to get him a comfort package that had some shaving gel and a razor. Others were grateful to be able to take a shower and have a place to lay their head with a pillow, a warm blanket and food.

“A lot of (individuals/families) came in with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They didn’t have shoes, they didn’t have socks, then didn’t have underwear. I was known as Sheryl with an S. My name starts with an S, it’s spelled the special way, not the common way so I was Sheryl with an S (laughs). That was a running thing, even with the volunteers. They would say ‘Hi Sheryl with an S’ and a smile.

“We had people young and old, from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and ethnicities. On my last day, there was a woman who came in after being released from the hospital. She said she and her husband were going to ride (the storm) out. They were hanging onto a tree when she watched her husband of 46 years get swept away. She had to hold onto that tree for what she said was hours before somebody rescued her. I couldn’t imagine what that was like. She said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. We’ve been together for so long.’ She wanted to take advantage of Spiritual Care and the Red Cross Integrated Care and Condolence team services.

“One man shared with me that he went to the second floor of his home (as the water was rushing in). As he was doing that, he was grabbing his driver’s license, Social Security card and put them in a plastic baggy, so that in case he died they would be able to identify him. He told me when the water came up to his chin, he just knew he was going to die. Then rescuers came and busted through his door and were able to get him out just in time before his home collapsed. There was another woman who had diabetes. She walked around with a (plastic) container with ice in it. I said to her, what do you have in there. She said ‘I have diabetes, this is my insulin, and I don’t want anything to happen to it. It must stay cold. Another gentleman traveled around with his suitcase in the shelter – I asked why.  He said it was his colostomy bag equipment. 

The Next Deployment

“Would I do it again, absolutely. For me, once I retired, I knew God still had a purpose for me. And it wasn’t until this hurricane that I confirmed this was my calling. I had always wanted to do this, but just didn’t have the time to do it. Once this hurricane landed, I knew this was my purpose. I now have a new volunteer career that I’m humbled and honored to serve locally, regionally or wherever needed. There’s a time and a season for everything and this was my season to volunteer.”

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