Santa Rosa shelter resident knows how she will thank Red Cross

By Jim Burns

A photo of Erika Cunningham being comforted by two Red Cross workers at a shelter in Santa Rosa.

Erika Cunningham, right, is comforted by two Red Cross workers at a shelter in Santa Rosa.

Like many Santa Rosa residents, Erika Cunningham was initially disoriented by the “reverse 9-1-1” phone call that awakened her from a deep sleep in the early morning hours of October 9. Standing in her kitchen moments later, she was trying to make sense of the phone message, which she had only partially heard.

Confusion quickly turned into concern as Erika stared disbelievingly out the kitchen window at the fiery glow outside. Within minutes, her concern became full-fledged fright when a helpful neighbor, reinforcing the phone call’s evacuation instructions, knocked frantically on Erika’s front door.

Grabbing almost none of her possessions on the way out, Erika quickly fled her Oakmont neighborhood home.

Four days later, on Friday, October 13, Erika reflected on her time at the Finley Recreation Center in town, site of one of the emergency shelters the American Red Cross established for the thousands of city residents who were driven from their home by the unimaginably destructive Tubbs Fire. Like many there, she remained uncertain about the fate of her home and its contents.

But on this particular Friday the 13th, Erika was feeling surprisingly lucky: She was alive, and she was being taken care of by the American Red Cross.

“I am just so impressed by what the Red Cross has done at this shelter,” Erika said, sitting in the facility’s makeshift dining room. “There are no words that can completely describe what the Red Cross has done here.”

An immigrant when she came to this country almost 60 years ago, Erika speaks with an accent that still connects her to her native Germany. But what is most noticeable about her speech is the forthrightness of her words, delivered with a confident twinkle in her eye.

On that particular day in that particular Red Cross shelter, Erika was passionately describing the organizations she has regularly supported with donations. Her philanthropic favorites, she said, have typically been charities that exclusively support veterans or people with physical disabilities. Further down her list was the American Red Cross.

“I have given to the Red Cross in the past,” she said. “And after the hurricane in Texas, I gave more of course.”

But taking stock of the hundreds of people who were being helped at the Finley shelter, she paused to add: “I will give much more to the Red Cross now.”

Was she moved to give more because of the help she and others were receiving at the Finley shelter? Certainly, Erika acknowledged. But that’s not the whole story, she quickly added.

“I see and feel what the Red Cross people are doing here,” Erika said. “They are helping all of us with compassion and caring that comes straight from the heart.”