Relentless in their help

Most of us don’t realize we have just two minutes to escape a home fire. 
Photo by Brad Zerivitz | American Red Cross


Navy veteran Michael Ocaranza awoke to flames engulfing his apartment. He had just enough time to grab his dog, Sparky, and race out the door as fire licked around his head. Mike ultimately suffered 1st and 2nd degree burns on his forearms and shoulders. He was hospitalized in San Francisco for two weeks.

American Red Cross volunteers and case managers, Betsy Witthohn and Cindy Jones, first contacted Mike during his hospitalization and began to put together resources for his welfare following his stay. After two weeks of care, Mike’s brother Alonzo – also a veteran – transported Mike from the hospital back to Sonoma County.

“I picked Mike up, and we went directly over to the Red Cross office,” said Alonzo. “Betsy met us outside. She had a cash card to give to Mike, some emergency supplies and a little startup money. She was really, really nice from the beginning. Her communication skills blew me away. I had never experienced anyone who put so much effort… and as a volunteer… they were helping me, too.”

Betsy would go on to serve as the primary contact for both Mike and his family while sorting out additional resources as Mike began his recovery.

Mike says the support he received was unparalleled. “Betsy and Cindy spoiled me,” he said. “They had time to help me out and calm me down. They made me very comfortable. And they left no stone unturned. I like that.”

Alonzo’s wife, Vicky, helped make a connection, too. “Mike had a lot of things to figure out,” she said. “For sure shelter was at the top of the list. I worked in Turlock, and I asked around the agencies that worked with the homeless, and someone suggested contacting Veterans Affairs (VA). I called the VA in Sacramento and they gave me a number for services in Santa Rosa. Right away, the Red Cross took that info and did the follow-up on Mike’s behalf. He’s now staying in a motel, but the VA is working on housing with him.”

“It was a godsend for them to manage his case as well as they did,” said Vicky. “We don’t live in proximity or know the area.”

Neither Mike nor his brother Alonzo had direct experience with the Red Cross before this event, though Alonzo donated to the organization through the years. Following their experiences, both brothers were full of praise.

“Oh gosh, there are no words,” said Alonzo. “I have a hard time describing the way I feel – I can’t thank them enough – they went above and beyond. I was in the service industry, even in the air force, and I know what it’s like to help people – but these people were relentless in their help – they come across to me as worth every penny.”

When asked if he would like to say anything to Betsy and Cindy, Mike responded, “I’m speechless. There’s so much I’d like to say – if I could repay back everything they gave me, then I surely would. They’re like friends from the past that I never had before – it’s a good feeling all over. I can’t explain it. It’s exhilarating.”