This award-winning actor discovered why our volunteers have been VIPs during the CZU Fire

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Preparing to assemble re-entry kits for fire evacuees, Casey Affleck is briefed by Michele Averill, CEO for the Central Coast Chapter (right), and Kerrin Welsh, Regional Preparedness Manager, in a warehouse in the community of Aromas. (Photo by Brian Nichols)
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As a long-time Red Cross volunteer and disaster responder, I have seen first-hand the impact disasters have on individuals, families, first responders, and entire communities. Although the resulting devastation and loss are unbearable, natural disasters can also bring out the very best in people who step forward to help in any way possible.

Academy Award-winning actor Casey Affleck and his friend Brian Nichols were two such people, wanting to provide assistance during the devastating CZU Lightning Complex Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

My experience with the two began when I learned that Michele Averill, CEO for our Central Coast Chapter; Kerrin Welsh, a member of the region’s Disaster Cycle Services team; and I would be hosting a VIP and his friend. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when Casey and Brian joined us on Sunday, August 30, at the Red Barn in Aromas, a facility that had been serving as a warehouse for Red Cross disaster supplies distributed to clients in affected fire areas.

Casey could not have been more humble and gracious — no press, no entourage, no attitude. He and Brian went to work building re-entry kits for residents who were returning home. We all rolled up our sleeves, and our two guests hustled right alongside our amazing Red Cross volunteers and staff. Casey even challenged the team by suggesting we see how fast we could build 10 kits. Together, we created them in less than 60 seconds. In all, we assembled more than 500 kits that Sunday.

The following day, we took Casey and Brian out to survey the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds site, where they met with evacuees. Casey was kind and thoughtful with everyone we talked to. Because of COVID-19 restriction, it was really easy for him to fly under the radar — which seemed to be his preference. We all had masks on, and he was wearing a baseball hat.

In fact, no one recognized him until we had to sign in to enter the shelter. While Casey was having his temperature taken, a volunteer at the registration area asked for his first name, which he gave; then she asked for his last name, which he gave. At that point she jumped up and exclaimed, “No way; it’s you?” He just laughed and humbly said “yes.”

Our last stop that day was at the Santa Cruz County Recovery Resource Center, where Casey spoke at length with Karen Chapmen, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s Chief of Staff, about the roles different agencies play in helping people and communities recover from disasters of this magnitude. Casey really wanted to understand what communities like ours face on the long road to recovery.

One of the most endearing parts of the two days was that every time someone asked who Casey was he responded that he was a new Red Cross volunteer and was just trying to learn about the processes and best practices behind disaster response and recovery.

Having worked with hundreds of Red Cross volunteers over the years, I can honestly say that Casey and Brian were delightful to work with and would both be amazing Red Cross volunteers. I would have them on my team any day of the week.

They were true VIPs — like every other Red Cross volunteer who has supported this Disaster Response so heroically!

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About the author: Megan Erk is a Sheltering Lead, Executive Board Member, and CEO Volunteer Partner for the Central Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross.

You too can become a Red Cross volunteer: Please consider getting trained as a Shelter Worker so that you can help us help others during wildfires and other large disasters. For more information and/or to start your application process; just go today to redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html.