|Sherry Sparks, right, client casework supervisor, discusses cases with team member Anthony Kraljic at the Pigeon Forge Red Cross shelter. Photo by J. Suzanne Horsley/American Red Cros|
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee --December 17, 2016
Three weeks after the first American Red Cross disaster shelters opened for Gatlinburg fire victims, a few shelter residents remained without another place to stay. This is where Sherry Sparks, a client casework volunteer from Pennsylvania, does her best work.
“It’s the last that need the most,” said Sparks of the clients who tend to stay at shelters the longest. Generally, those are the ones who are already struggling financially or may have lost their jobs after a large disaster. These clients have the most difficulty starting over.
Sparks worked with the last seven shelter residents to help them “get off a cot and into a bed.” She met with each client individually to listen to their stories, understand their challenges, and help them develop a plan to move forward.
“I get personally involved so that I can really understand their needs,” said Sparks. She empowers them to take charge of their plans to get into a more comfortable and sustainable housing situation, and then she works with them to find housing, additional resources, or even a job or vehicle – whatever they need to have a successful new start.
“I tell them, ‘I need you to help me help you,’” she said. “I can make a plan for them, but that might not be what they want.”
One of Sparks’ last clients at the shelter in Pigeon Forge lost her home and 14 cats that she had rescued. In addition, this client struggled to keep two jobs after her car broke down. Sparks said that after she spent some time with this woman, she learned that she went back to her burned-out home each day to leave food just in case any of her cats survived the fire. She worked with this client to help her develop a strategy to move on from the temporary state of a disaster shelter and into an apartment. This plan included applying for FEMA disaster recovery funds as well as Dolly Parton’s “My People Fund.” She is also working to find local resources to get her back into a car.
“A lot of what I do is above and beyond the job description, but sometimes you have to understand their stories in order to provide the most help,” she said. Some other unusual assistance has included getting someone a bus ticket to reunite with family members, finding ways to keep multi-generational families together when they transition to new housing, and helping a chronically homeless person who was passing through Gatlinburg take the next step to more permanent living conditions.
One man she met was a traveler from North Carolina who found himself “stuck” in Gatlinburg after the wildfires. When she met him, he had no plan in place to leave the Red Cross shelter. After they got to know each other a bit and he began to understand her role with the Red Cross, he said to her, “I want you to be home for Christmas.” Sparks said that his desire to help her finish her job and return to Pennsylvania motivated him to make plans to return to North Carolina. “His concern for me made me cry,” she said, “but that’s part of the Red Cross transition plan – getting our clients in a position where they can make their own choices to move forward.”
Sparks has laughed and cried with her clients, but she was happy when the last person left the Red Cross shelter because that meant everyone had found a place to live before Christmas. The last shelter at the Pigeon Forge Community Center transitions back to the city on Sunday, December 17, at noon. Anyone who still needs Red Cross assistance can call 1-800-Red-Cross.