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Marilee Thomas brings hope to hurricane devastated area

Published Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Marilee Thomas
Marilee Thomas

“Volunteers bring hope,” states Marilee Thomas, SMSU administrative assistant in the Dean’s Office and American Red Cross volunteer.

In her six years as a volunteer, she has had many diverse experiences, including a recent deployment to Wilmington, N.C., after Hurricane Florence pounded the area with damaging winds and catastrophic flooding.

Thomas and her husband, Kerry, live in the Marshall area and have three children. Before moving to Marshall last year, she worked at a college in Iowa, where she had the opportunity to be an American Red Cross club advisor for the first Red Cross collegiate club in Northwest Iowa.

She has been deployed to Houston and Kentucky following hurricanes, and, recently, she assisted in setting up a shelter in Slayton, Minn., after the July 3rd floods. Wherever Thomas goes, her main mission is to live the Red Cross way and to “turn compassion into action.”

Although Thomas has never personally experienced hardship like she has seen throughout the country, she did watch as her sister’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home was damaged due to a flood in 2008. She wasn’t a Red Cross volunteer at the time. However, she does recall the Red Cross ERV’s (Emergency Response Vehicle) driving through town to provide refreshments and assistance. “When you are a hot mess from flood cleanup, the Red Cross is there for you,” Thomas recalls.  Since Thomas understands the pain and suffering her sister went through, she wants to make sure she “is there for others whose lives have suddenly taken a different turn.”

This turn may be due to a natural disaster such as a tornado, hurricane or flood, or it could be at the scene of a house fire. Every eight minutes someone experiences a house fire, and seven times a day someone in this country dies from one. Thomas is active with the local Red Cross and recently helped with the Home Fire Preparedness Campaign assisting the Marshall Fire Department in checking and installing fire alarms in local homes. 

Although she is busy locally, she also has life-changing experiences when she travels to areas devastated by natural disasters. On September 25, 2018, she packed her duffle bag and headed to the Wilmington area to assist in shelters and supervise case work. Her main focus was to listen to residents’ stories and determine what the Red Cross or other organizations could do to assist them and help them move forward. For many, simply telling their story to someone who is compassionate and caring is healing. For others, they may need to find a way to uproot their family so their children can have some consistency and normalcy again. Although some families willingly move from these areas, many want to stay where they are. Their goal may be to continue working and attending school in the same area so they don’t need to experience more changes. Therefore, Thomas and her team provide them with resources and places they could turn for help.

 “Every disaster is different and every story is unique,” Thomas states. Therefore, she loves doing case work where she can connect people to resources and find a way to provide them with hope again.

For many who experienced the devastation caused by Hurricane Florence, they were safe from the hurricane itself. The flooding after caused the most devastation. One family recalled walking through knee-deep and then neck-deep water to find safety. They waited to be rescued and eventually found themselves at Thomas’ shelter. “The damage from the rain is a horrible thing to underestimate,” Thomas recalls.

 “In disaster situations, we all have our own job to do,” Thomas stated. In fact, she worked closely with many other organizations while working in Wilmington. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), HUD (Housing and Urban Development), Salvation Army, CERT team (Community Emergency Response Team), Children’s Disaster Services, and the Southern Baptist Mobile Kitchen each played vital roles. “We are all there for the same purpose,” Thomas said. “We are all there to take care of somebody and to provide compassion and hope. We are all passionate about what we do.”

Each job is important when dealing with relief efforts. “We all have a mutual admiration for what each organization does,” Thomas said.  “We are all there to help those in need. Disaster relief isn’t done by one group or organization. There are many diverse people and organizations. However, everyone bands together to help others. At the end of the day, we all have stories to tell, we all need to decompress, and we all support each other and the mission we are there to complete.”

In Wilmington, Thomas and her team stayed at a shelter which was set up in a fitness center. They also typically ate with the residents unless they were traveling throughout the city and then they would help stimulate the economy in those areas by supporting the small, local businesses. She was often overwhelmed and humbled by the gratitude local residents would show them. In one restaurant, they received a standing ovation when they arrived; in other places, families would go out of their way to approach them to thank them for what they did. “We don’t expect anything,” Thomas commented, but she does appreciate the gratitude shown.

Although she volunteers because she is passionate about what she does, she does wish others would understand the impact their donations have on those who need relief. There are many misconceptions about organizations such as the Red Cross, so Thomas wishes everyone had the opportunity to experience the relief and hope she shares with others. This hope is made possible through the financial assistance and generosity of others.

She is grateful for the many inspirational people whose paths she crosses throughout her travels to areas devastated by natural disasters. There are so many people who smile simply because they know they are taken care of today.  “We give them assistance, we provide them with opportunities and we take away some of their roadblocks and create a chance for a new ‘normal’ in an unfortunate situation,” she said. Her volunteer opportunities at the Red Cross gives her the chance to see lives changed. “We empower people to move forward,” she humbly recalls.

Although Thomas is ready to deploy within a day’s notice and often leaves her family behind, she admits, “this is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.” Thankfully, her family is supportive and allows her to be gone for weeks at a time and transition again once she returns home.

She admits the work is challenging. “I always feel like there is still more I can do,” she said. However, she understands others will take over for her when she leaves. “It’s often difficult to walk away from a disaster and enter into everyday life,” she confesses. “While there, I don’t always realize how intense the work is; when I return home, I am exhausted but am so thankful for my family, my friends, and the simple things in life.”