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Local heroes 2010

We are all in their debt

In the 13th annual edition of the Providence Phoenix’s Best issue, we highlight people and organizations who are doing exceptionally good work — local heroes who often labor behind the scenes, but are changing their communities for the better. Whatever neighborhoods we live in, we are all in their debt.

HELPING HANDS Elaine Chicoria, Joy Babbin, and Paula Morrone. Photo: JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ


Many Rhode Islanders were inspired to train with the American Red Cross following Hurricane Katrina. But few could have anticipated that flood waters would wash over their own state.

The scene: It was mid-morning, March 30, and the Westerly Senior Citizens Center had been designated a shelter for nearby families and individuals fleeing the raging Pawcatuck River.

Red Cross volunteers Joy Babbin, 66, Elaine Chicoria, 54, and Paula Morrone, 64, all of Westerly, were named “shelter managers” and quickly set up a three-woman rotation.

The first night, the shelter housed 14 people, but by the next day, the senior center dining room had 72 “residents,” 30 of them bussed in at 1:30 am. The demands on the three managers were intense. None of them got much sleep for the first 72 hours —“you’re running on adrenaline,” Morrone said.

But they grabbed a few hours of off-duty sleep and rested when they could at the shelter, even if it just meant leaning back in an office chair for a few hours.

“One of the important tenets that the Red Cross has taught us,” Babbin said, “is that you must take care of yourself adequately in order to be an effective server to others.”

But each of the women worked beyond the limits of her eight-hour shift. There was just too much to do, and they were too invested in what was their first attempt at overseeing an emergency shelter.

The women tended to medical emergencies: prescriptions, insulin, or a wheelchair left behind. And they kept the shelter open for 10 days, even providing an Easter egg hunt for the children and a hot Easter dinner prepared by the chef from a local Chinese restaurant.

“I always knew our town was warm and loving,” Morrone said, “but this experience proved that it has a huge heart.”

She and the two other women, recalling their experience, referred repeatedly to scores of donations from local businesses, including donut shops, department stores, eateries, and supermarkets. And they also stressed the patience, respect, and appreciation shown by the stranded Westerlyites, who had to share a pair of restrooms and to shower at a nearby middle school (towels donated by Westerly Hospital).

A Westerly firefighter, living with his family in the shelter, kept going on calls; an elderly gent who wound up with bed sores barely complained; four teenage boys sat quietly for three days and tried to help the volunteers; no one broke any of the basic rules: no drugs, no weapons, no smoking.

“But we got back more than we gave out, didn’t we?” Babbin asked her two co-managers. “When you serve someone else, you’re really serving yourself.”

Two of the women, like many other volunteers, were directly affected by the flooding. Babbin, who is self-employed, had to go home periodically to check that her disabled husband hadn’t fallen, make sure there was enough oil in her generator, and bail water out of her basement. Morrone, who works part-time at the high school, had been planning an Easter dinner for her large extended family. But her home had no power for a week, and her street was evacuated two days before Easter.

It is the opportunity to serve, though, that sticks with the women.

Morrone, who had watched her husband and children volunteer in the community for years, saw her chance when the Red Cross training came to Westerly. Babbin was glad that she could do something right in her town, since she needs to juggle her volunteer time with caring for her husband. And Chicoria, a physical therapist, strongly believes in the guiding principles of the Red Cross.

“I was more than happy to join forces with them,” she said, “and to do it within your own community is a plus. When you are helping your neighbors, that feels like such a good thing.”

“I think you have to give back to the community you live in,” Babbin said.

--Johnette Rodriguez

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