Bridging 4,500 miles to lend a helping hand

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Roberto Garcia, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron lead firefighter, dedicated hours of his time volunteering at the American Red Cross’ call center established at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to lend a hand to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico for victims of Hurricane Maria. Garcia was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and feeling powerless to help his mother, sister, and wife’s family who were living on the island over 4,500 miles away, he helped all those he could through the reunification mission at the call center. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Senior Airman Tryphena Mayhugh) (This image was created using a composite techniques.)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Alberto Garcia, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron lead firefighter, dedicated hours of his time volunteering at the American Red Cross’ call center established at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to lend a hand to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico for victims of Hurricane Maria. Garcia was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and feeling powerless to help his mother, sister, and wife’s family who were living on the island over 4,500 miles away, he helped all those he could through the reunification mission at the call center. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Senior Airman Tryphena Mayhugh) (This image was created using composite techniques.)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany --

As the 13th named storm, seventh hurricane, fourth major hurricane, and second Category 5 hurricane in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Hurricane Maria caused devastation across the Northeast Caribbean. One of the areas hit by the tropical storm was the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, reaching the island’s shores Sept. 20, causing massive damage to the entire island.

In order to aid relief efforts in Puerto Rico, the American Red Cross stood up a call center on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, with a mission to reunify those effected by the storm.

Staff Sgt. Alberto Garcia, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron lead firefighter, was born and raised in Puerto Rico, so when he heard about the Red Cross looking for volunteers, he immediately joined.

“Being in the call center to answer those phone calls, it was really tough,” Garcia said. “A lot of Puerto Ricans, we get emotionally involved really easily. It was tough at the beginning for all the volunteers because we knew what they needed, but we couldn’t provide it at that point since we were miles away. It was tough answering those phone calls, but I would do it again.”

More than 4,500 miles from Ramstein, Garcia’s mother, sister, and his wife’s entire family live in Puerto Rico and were there when Hurricane Maria hit.

“One thing that was so heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, we had volunteers who hadn’t heard from their families on the ground, but it was so important to them they were there to help everybody and anybody, not just their family,” said Chris Spalding, Service to the Armed Forces American Red Cross European, Middle Eastern, and African Division partner. “They collectively feel we are one humankind and we need to work together to make things better. I was so moved by our call center operations.”

Garcia and his family were glad to hear their families were safe and well. Hurricane Maria took the lives of 88 people, 43 of them in Puerto Rico. After taking the first few phone calls, Garcia had to take a moment to compose himself before he could continue, as many emotions were whirling through his head.

“Sadness was the biggest one, and feeling helpless at the time,” Garcia said. “You know those are your people. If you don’t know them, you probably know someone who does, because Puerto Rico isn’t a big island. I think sadness and powerless would be the main two emotions I felt during the time I was [at the call center]. It was an eye-opening experience.

“If you look at the ten toughest jobs in the world, the first is a U.S. military member and the second one is a firefighter,” he continued. “So to be able to be successful at my job, I have to be resilient. Whenever I got those calls I closed my eyes and thought about how at that moment those people needed me to answer the phone; so step back, take a deep breath, go back to the basics, do what they taught me in my resiliency training, and answer the next phone call. For some people it might be a little bit difficult, but if you never forget what you are there for and never lose focus, you should be fine.”

Between the call centers, those who provided snacks at the call centers, and those who deployed to Puerto Rico, the ARC had almost 1,600 volunteers give their time to help others.

“I’m never surprised when the military community steps up because that’s what they do best,” Spalding said. “They are always the first to step up and answer the call, and it’s not just the active duty members; it’s the spouses, contractors, civilian personnel, and the retiree community. I’m never surprised by how wonderful the response is when we raise our hand and say we need something.

“It’s really unfortunate the Red Cross collectively does their best when someone else’s situation is absolutely the worst it could possibly be,” she continued. “We will always, especially in the military community, be there to help take care of another human being when they are in need. For me, I personally feel very positive about that and I am so unbelievably proud of how many people have stepped up; newer volunteers, seasoned volunteers, everybody working together.”

Volunteering at the Red Cross’ call center was not the first time Garcia had interacted with the organization. In 2011, his father passed away and he was impressed by how they helped him.

Having experienced firsthand what the ARC offers to those in need, Garcia is working towards being in charge of the Ramstein Disaster Response Team the Red Cross wants to establish on the base.

“When I went to the Red Cross to volunteer for the call center, I saw them running back and forth trying to make this operation a success, and they did that, so I saw that sense of urgency,” Garcia said. “The experience I had when my dad passed away, they contacted me and I was on the next flight over to go home. Seeing how well the Red Cross acts whenever they are called upon, it helped me to be a volunteer for them. I told them they have probably earned a volunteer for life from me.”

Being a firefighter, Garcia knows what it’s like to help someone on one of the worst days of their life and feels like if he leaves them with a smile he has done his job. He said when he was answering calls from Puerto Rico, it was the same way; if they ended that call with a smile, then he did his job.

“I want to say thank you to the Red Cross for giving me the opportunity,” Garcia said. “They made me feel like part of their team. I also want to say thank you to my leadership who supported me all the way. To Puerto Rico, they will be fine if they stay together like they always do. El coqui is a small Puerto Rican frog that sings really loud, and a good friend of mine called me the other day and said no matter how destroyed the island looks, el coqui is still singing; so that’s a good sign.”

Puerto Rico is still recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, but through the dedication of people like Garcia and those at the ARC, a helping hand can reach across the globe to provide support and comfort for those who have lost so much.