Kirstie is one of my dearest friends, is a mother of two and a disaster response volunteer for the Scientology Volunteer Ministers in Florida. I’ve been trying to do an article with her for the last two years, but quite literally each time I’ve tried, I’ve found that she’s again on the ground at another disaster site, chainsaw in-hand, helping clear trees or coordinate getting gas generators or foodstuffs for those in need. In the last few years, despite also juggling the needs of two small children, she’s spent over 3500 hours on the ground at disaster sites as a volunteer, most recently running the relief efforts from our group after Hurricane Florence in North Carolina and Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Florida. She’s an inspiring example of the spirit of volunteerism I see among my friends at the Church, and I finally here have a bit of her story, in her words.
I get asked all the time, “How do you do it?” The answer probably has a lot to do with the fact that it’s always been my calling. About 20 years ago, as an 11 year old girl, I was running around Flag (the largest Church of Scientology, located in Clearwater, FL) when my parents and I were given a briefing about the Volunteer Ministers. All I can remember about that briefing was that it sounded like the funnest thing I could possibly do, and these volunteers all sounded like super heroes. Not sure they were really asking, but I eagerly signed up and went home. I enthusiastically checked the answering machine every day waiting to be “called to a disaster” though as a little girl I’m not sure I knew what that would even mean.
However, the first opportunity to do something as a volunteer came violently to my door on a chilly Tuesday morning in September of 2001. I was living right in the center of Manhattan in New York City at the time and watched the smoke billowing out of the Twin Towers with my own eyes. We were all stunned, confused and terrified by the attacks on the World Trade Center that morning – it was so unreal to most people that they were virtually immobilized with shock. I was just one of 800 volunteers who showed up to help in the months following. We filled in the gaps between law enforcement, search and rescue groups and government organizations. We supplied the seemingly mundane but absolutely vital items to the rescue workers of Ground Zero. We cooked, set up cots, supplied equipment and gave endless assists to the tireless workers who would refuse to get out of the pit until they were literally dropping from sheer exhaustion.
I remember finding a police officer sitting on the curb in Times Square the afternoon of 9/11, who was just staring off into space. I sat down next to him and without a word he turned to me and began to cry on my shoulder. I didn’t know what else to do, so I gave him a Locational Assist. He calmed down almost immediately and started looking at the people around him. He started speaking of his brothers that were missing and the people begging him to give them data about their own missing loved ones. After a while, he smiled and said “you know, I bet some of them made it, they are just lost in the confusion, thank you.” He hugged me, walked off and started helping the people around him.
It was then I learned that helping the helpers is one of the single most rewarding things to do on this Earth.
After spending years doing work for my Church, and beginning a family, I moved to Florida two years ago with my husband and two small children. I knew that I wanted to get back into the saddle as a volunteer no matter how hard it was, and that I would go to whatever disaster happened next.
Then, while on a plane back to Florida from the Caribbean, we were flying alongside Hurricane Harvey ripping through the Gulf, on it’s way to hit Texas. Within two weeks, I was on a flight to Austin, and was then flat-out on the ground with volunteers there cleaning up after the devastation Harvey left behind.
Since that time I have spent thousands of hours on the ground at various sites, from helping to clean up flood damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, TX, to coordinating supplies & cleanup efforts after Hurricane Irma in Tampa Bay and Central Florida, to desperately locating generators and clearing debris-strewn roads with the Army after the terrifying Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and working for weeks slinging chainsaws to de-impale trees from damaged property after Hurricane Florence in Jacksonville, North Carolina and Hurricane Michael in Panama City FL.
I have been asked more times than I can count “how do you do it”?
See, before I really decided to become a Volunteer Minister, I seemed to never have time, I was too busy, “my kids would miss me,” it was just “not the right time”. I always had a reason why I couldn’t make it happen to go and help as I knew I wanted to and could.
However, the amazing thing has been that any time I have needed to go to a disaster area and where I made the decision that I was going, it has always ended up working out perfectly with my family and the other facets of my life. The amount of support, love and help I receive to make it go right would blow you away. In 98% of the population, if they’d see people hurting in a disaster, they would have the urge to help. Maybe they don’t know how to help or what to do, but we all have this underlying human urge to help one another. Once you decide that you’re going no matter what, everything falls into place.
I wanted to give two of the main reasons why I volunteer. The first is that urge to help. There is nowhere in the world like a disaster zone. Not only does matter and energy and effort seem to operate differently, time moves slower, people act differently. The social veneer is literally ripped away. You get exposed, raw humanity in its simplest form. People will talk to you about anything and everything. Instead of hiding behind a fancy Instagram profile, the things that are really troubling folks are right on the surface and you know you are speaking directly with the THEM for maybe the first time in their entire life.
And because of that, I can see as a Scientologist that what I’m doing is really helping people at a fundamental level. You can see it in their eyes when they brighten up for the first time following an Assist, a smile spreads across their face as they realize they are no longer in the eye of the storm.
You see this time and again in a disaster zone. As an example, there was a lady who lived in a trailer park in Panama City, Florida, after Hurricane Michael had violently punched through the city at only 2 MPH short of a Category 5, with the eyewall sitting on top of them for 45 minutes. Tornadoes of incalculable force, laced throughout the storm, literally ripped homes from their foundations and made entire forests look like piles of chinese pick-up sticks. One of countless neighborhoods reduced to confused and chaotic rubble, out of 87 homes that stood at the beginning of the storm, only 26 remained, none untouched by Michael’s violent force.
An elderly lady in a wheelchair in one of the few remaining structures asked us if we could help put a tarp over the gaping holes in her roof. She was hungry, hot and tired. She was shell-shocked from her experience and sat silently crying in front of me in her destroyed home. She told me she had no money, nowhere to live, her doctor’s phone line, her only source or direly-needed medication, was nothing but an endless busy signal. Her life was truly in ruins and she had no idea what to do or where to go. When my team arrived to the area, the only appropriate thing I had to say to her was “I don’t yet know how, but I do know that something can be done about it.” I started a Locational Assist, she immediately snapped out of her crying stupor, and starting looking at the present time environment. She started smiling and said that that was the first time she had smiled since the storm. She started coming up with ideas about how to find solutions for her problems. We ended the Assist and she asked what had just happened. As I explained it to her, I mentioned that it was a really simple technique, she looked me right in the eye and said “that was the first time I’ve smiled since the storm, sometimes the most simple things are the most powerful”.
Hurricane Florence, by comparison, was a devastating, slow moving hurricane that hit the Jacksonville and Wilmington area in North Carolina, dropping over 18 trillion gallons of water slowly over four days. It caused extensive flooding and caused river levels to rise over 30 feet across the state. One family we helped with lived in a home not far from a river, had over 8 feet of water and lost absolutely everything. They were an older couple, the wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, the grandmother lived with them and was 87 years old. They were lucky enough to get out as the river rose, before it washed out their road.
We arrived to help the man, named Roger. When we got there, he was exhausted and apathetic. A normally bright and cheery man, he rebuilt race cars for a passion and had lived in his home for 30 years. They had already endured 2 floods in the last 10 years and had always re-built. They had no flood insurance, a common occurrence in these areas, and no real way to get help.
We arrived with over 30 VMs and started to help him with the heartbreaking process of removing a lifetime of destroyed belongings, and ripped out flooring and dry wall before life threatening mold could take hold. He was solid, apathetic, and stuck in the shock of the incident when we started. By the end of the day, he had slowly brightened up and was talking, smiling and joking with us. He kept repeating “I can’t believe you are here” throughout the day. As we were packing up to leave, he asked to say a few words to thank us. He told us that when he had returned to the house for the first time the night before we arrived, he walked in and felt an enormous feeling of overwhelm. He didn’t know how he would ever get through it alone, he had no one to turn to for help, he thought there was nothing that could really be done about it. He said he just cried and sat down on his front porch. He felt so caved in, he began to think about ending it all. He decided he was going to pray to God, it was the only thing he knew to do. He prayed for help and for a ray of sunshine. The next morning he got a call from his pastor that a group of Scientologists were coming to help him. When we arrived in force wearing bright yellow shirts, the color of sunshine, all he could think was “goddam, thank you God, I didn’t realize you would be so specific!” He told us that he couldn’t believe the unconditional help we gave him, the kindness we had shown and the speed and efficiency in which we completed our work with him. He said he had really no idea what Scientology was about and he had only ever heard bad things from the media. But now he knew what we were about, he really knew and no one and nothing could ever change his mind. He would fight to defend us to anyone and would always remember what he did for him in some of the most trying days of his life.
The second reason that I volunteer is that it is an honor and a privilege to be a Scientology Volunteer Minister, to have an outlet to be able to see a disaster on the news, to see people in pain and to be able to go there, get your hands dirty and do something about it. To be able to walk into that situation knowing that you have the purpose and the tools to truly help people. There is nothing like it in the world.