Debbie Calcote sees people at their most vulnerable.
As a Red Cross volunteer, she gets called out when people have lost their home to a fire. She can drive up to a neighborhood in the middle of the night and find a family in a daze as they watch everything they own burn.
It's not just losing their furniture, appliances and clothing that stings. The flames can destroy a lifetime of memories, devouring family photo albums, keepsakes and heirlooms passed down over the generations.
"It's very, very overwhelming for the family," said Calcote, who has responded to about 150 house fires in her more than four years with the Stanislaus County Chapter of the American Red Cross. "You offer your shoulder. You let them cry and vent."
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Calcote and the other Red Cross volunteers are among the thousands of Stanislaus County residents who volunteer. While nonprofits and other agencies that help people gladly accept cash and donations, volunteers also are needed.
As the recession grinds on, these agencies have seen their budgets cut and the demand for services rise as the local unemployment rate tops 16 percent.
"Volunteering isn't just a nice thing to do, it's necessary," said Barbara Borba, coordinator for the United Way of Stanislaus County's Volunteer Center, which matches volunteers with about 250 nonprofit, and health and social service agencies.
The need for volunteers is especially great during the holidays. Borba said people can tailor volunteering to fit their lives. For some, that means volunteering once a year; for others that means volunteering 40 hours a week.
The opportunities to help are endless, from driving seniors to medical appointments, teaching an adult to read and coaching youth sports to being a foster parent to a cat or dog, mentoring teen moms or playing the piano at a retirement home.
Or helping out at the Red Cross.
Calcote is among the 15 or so local Red Cross volunteers who respond to house fires in Stanislaus County. The Red Cross sends at least two volunteers to a house fire.
They try to move the family down the street and away from the fire, to lessen their shock. They give them quilts and blankets and a comfort kit, which includes toiletries and coloring books and stuffed animals for the children.
They call one of the motels the Red Cross contracts with and arrange for lodging for the family for the next couple of days or so and give them a voucher card to buy clothes and food for a week. A family of four would get a $600 voucher card.
They give them a recovery plan that lists the agencies the family needs to call to access long-term help. Red Cross volunteers also check in with the family over the next several days to make sure they get the help they need.
"These volunteers have so much compassion," said Rebecca Ciszek, executive director of the local Red Cross chapter. "They are willing to put aside their personal lives to take care of the needs of others 24 hours a day. They are there to help those families."
The local Red Cross chapter went to 101 house fires in Stanislaus County for its budget year that ended June 30. The fires displaced 333 people, including 110 children. The Red Cross spent nearly $30,000 providing these families with food, clothing and temporary housing.
Fire departments call the Red Cross when families have no place to go. The vast majority of the families are low-income, living paycheck to paycheck, rent their homes and don't have renters insurance, Ciszek said. Some families will be able to return to their homes. But in about 40 percent of the fires, the families lose everything.
"For some of these families, it took all of their resources to get into a home, and in some cases it can be extremely difficult to get into another home," she said.
Calcote, 49, lives in Crows Landing and works full time teaching computer skills to disabled veterans. She said it was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that brought her to the Red Cross.
"I think Katrina hit everyone, just like 9-11," she said. "You want to do something. I called different agencies (but they weren't responding to the hurricane). I called Red Cross and they said, 'If you can answer a phone and take notes, come on down.' "
Calcote has been the Red Cross' volunteer emergency services manager for the past year, putting in 10 to 15 hours a week at the Red Cross office. She also sends out Red Cross volunteers to house fires and responds to fires herself about every three weeks.
Calcote said volunteering at the Red Cross opened her eyes about how people's lives can turn upside down in a heartbeat and encouraged her to give more of herself.
She adopts women and children at Haven's Women Center for Christmas, providing them with a holiday meal and gifts; is part of a Patterson group that feeds the homeless; and takes part in an annual Christmas toy drive on the West Side.
"It kind of puts life in perspective, it makes things very humbling," she said about her Red Cross work. "You learn to appreciate life."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2316.