Barbara Taylor runs one of the major food distribution efforts for earthquake victims in Fillmore--an undertaking so massive that she has to parcel out assembly line shifts to volunteer food packagers at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.
“Everybody needs to give,” she said. “So we have people help for a little while and then we let someone else help.”
In Simi Valley, electronics engineer Tim Gray helped set up the American Red Cross shelter within hours of the Jan. 17 earthquake. He and his wife have been rotating shifts there between their regular jobs ever since.
“I love helping people,” said Gray, 26. “I’m exhausted afterward, but it makes me feel really good.”
Alida Albers, 81, also has been helping quake victims in Simi Valley: visiting the elderly, bringing them food and water and taking them to the doctor. People who can’t get out of their homes need her help now more than ever, said Albers, whose own mobile home was destroyed.
“If you take your mind off your own problems, you begin to accept them and see you’re not as bad off as others,” she said. “You have a place to stay and people who love you, so you try to help others.”
Taylor, Gray and Albers are only three of the hundreds of people from Ventura County and around the nation who have volunteered to help the area’s earthquake victims.
Fillmore Fire Chief Pat Askren and many other officials believe that the county’s volunteer effort has been crucial.
“There is no way we could have gotten through this without them,” Askren said. But the volunteer effort has not surprised him, he added.
“In every disaster, we see the true spirit of Americans coming out,” he said. “They have compassion. They take care of each other.”
The people who make up the county’s cast of volunteers include young members of an Oxnard church group that barbecued hamburgers for 150 people in Piru, geologists who have been roaming the San Fernando Valley in search of fissures in the earth, and plumbers who used their weekends to go from house to house to restore water and gas.
Even massage therapists are donating their hands and time to help relieve stress for overworked Red Cross volunteers.
“We’ll do the head, neck and shoulder massage, usually about 10- to 15-minute treatments,” said Bernice Austin, a therapist and coordinator for the Ventura County Sports Massage Team and president of the local chapter of the American Massage Therapy Assn.
“It’s stressful on the hands, so we have to limit the time,” she said. “We can’t work the magic we normally do, but we’ll do several techniques to relieve tensions that get built up.”
Benjamin (B.J.) Fessenden, a Thousand Oaks plumber, has been leading his team of volunteer contractors into the hard-hit Northridge area on weekends. They have been turning on gas and water so people can resume their lives, he said.
“People are so happy,” he said. “The gratification is incredible.”
Fessenden said he wants more contractors to help. Those interested can call him at 376-2878.
Pamela Irvine, a geologist with the California Division of Mines and Geology, said her colleagues and others in private industry have offered their time to help busy experts affiliated with the U.S. Geological Survey determine whether the fault caused any surface ruptures.
“The whole consulting community of geologists and engineering geologists have been walking the mountains and driving the streets to check for cracks,” she said.
Members of the Gathering Christian Fellowship in Oxnard bought the groceries and then flipped the burgers for residents of Piru last weekend.
“We were needed,” said Kendra McLaughlin. “I guess we just like to give of our time.”
Taylor and Albers were already working as volunteers when disaster struck. Taylor organizes a weekly food giveaway for the poor at St. Francis of Assisi.
They help 150 families with groceries every week, she said. But since the earthquake, the lines have been long and constant.
“I’m just here helping people like everybody else,” said Taylor, who is out of work because the beauty parlor where she worked crumbled in the quake. She was amazed at how people from all over the county and outside rallied to help.
“People are going to the Price Club and loading up the station wagon and bringing it here,” she said. “It’s just wonderful.”
Albers, a widow for nine years, is a stalwart among volunteers at Oasis, a Simi Valley organization that coordinates volunteers to visit the elderly in their homes and keep them out of institutions.
“I try to help where I can,” she said. “The earthquake has brought out more sharing and caring for one another.” But the work is tiring.
“After the earthquake, I feel like I’m 85 or 90,” she said. Oasis normally has 40 volunteers, but that number has doubled in the aftermath of the disaster, said Program Director Veronica Spalding.
Then there are the Red Cross volunteers, a well-organized cadre of members of all professions from all parts of the country. With only nine paid Red Cross employees in Ventura County, the volunteers are essential, said Mike Goth, director of emergency services for the Ventura County chapter.
Some Red Cross volunteers “self-activated” according to a preset plan when the quake hit, he said.
The Simi Valley disaster team went quickly into action, calling City Hall to determine if shelters were needed. By midday, Goth said, a shelter was open at a local high school.
Shelters were also accepting victims in Fillmore by midday, “and we were feeding people by early afternoon,” Goth said. “It took a lot of people to get the shelters together and get the feeding going, and those people were all volunteers.”
John Hernandez, 49, of Oxnard has worked for the Red Cross for three years and loves the satisfaction that being a relief worker gives him.
“When you see a little boy giving you a smile, there’s no words to compare with that,” he said.
And veteran volunteer Jack Kelso of Texas isn’t hard to miss at a Red Cross disaster site, with his white cowboy hat adorned with more than 50 brightly colored pins denoting various U.S. disasters.
“I can look at that and tell you there’s a picture or a story or a face for every one of those,” said the Dallas resident. “My wife and I are retired and in good physical shape. We can’t afford to write a check, but we can give our time and effort.”
At the Simi Valley Federal Emergency Management Agency center set up at the Sycamore Community Center, volunteer Margaret Jackson, 62, was in Florida after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, and traveled three times to the Midwest during the floods.
Sometimes, Jackson said, her most important task is to help disaster victims keep up their spirits.
“Sometimes it’s just trying to keep people happy who have lost everything,” she said. “You can just look at their faces and you can see the hurt. People who never expected to be without a home. . . . It’s a major emotional and financial burden for them to bear.”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilson and correspondent Maia Davis contributed to this story.