Monthly Archives: September 2012

I never need convincing that Red Cross volunteers are the salt of the earth. I know that already. I don’t need to be at an event to know how dedicated and committed Red Cross volunteers are. But there is just something about our annual Celebration of Volunteers event that makes what they do individually and collectively awe inspiring. No matter how much you already appreciate them, this event makes you appreciate them even more.

More than 400 American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania volunteers were on hand for the 10th anniversary of the event. It honors all Red Cross SEPA volunteers and the amazing work they do each year for disaster survivors in the Philadelphia region and across  the country.

I know many of the volunteers personally. I’ve met them at disaster scenes or various functions. They all have their own reasons for volunteering. Each brings their own skill sets and strengths. Just like any job.Noel for example, received our Disaster Action Team Captain of the Year. He was so deserving and got a rousing cheer when his name was announced. He’s very unassuming and upon first meeting him, you’d never figure him for a take charge, DAT captain. But he owns his own company that does computer techy stuff I’ll never understand. He is a leader by any definition. And we are lucky to have him. There’s Jen, who is not only a Philadelphia firefighter full-time and Red Cross volunteer, but she also runs Red Paw, a non-profit that takes care of pets temporarily following a disaster so families can focus on their recovery. She showed up to the event in a sling because one of the dogs in her care bit her arm and the injury was so bad she required surgery. But that has not deterred her. I was tweeting back and forth with her a few days ago as she was responding to a disaster. I didn’t know about the attack. She was already back at it just days after the attack. She’s a better person than I am. There’s Sarah Shabaglian. I had never met her. She’s no longer technically a volunteer. But at 93 years old, she was being honored for her service to the Red Cross and our Armed Forces. She served in World War II in Italy and Okinawa helping our GIs and their spouses get back to the U.S. She was decked out in her full Red Cross military uniform. What an amazing moment that was for the entire room.

Noel with his Disaster Action Team Captain of the Year award at our Celebration of Volunteers event. Pictured with SEPA’s Volunteer Chair, Chairman of the Board and 6ABC’s Alicia Vitarelli

Jen with her special partnership award for her work with the Red Cross on behalf of Red Paw. Pictured with SEPA Chair of Volunteers, Chairman of the Board, and 6ABC’s Alicia Vitarelli

Sarah (Sally) Shabaglian received a special Services to the Armed Forces legacy award for her work on behalf of the Red Cross during World War II

I could give you example after example of volunteers with amazing stories. These were just three. The volunteers don’t do what they do to get awards and recognition. Many don’t even want it. But to me this event is  about more than just recognition. It’s a way for all the volunteers to enjoy each other outside of a moment of disaster. A chance for them to reconnect or meet for the very first time. The Red Cross is a family after all. Sometimes dysfunctional, but always caring, always looking out for each other and those we serve.

One thing I am always struck by when I meet a volunteer for the first time and tell them what I do. They almost always respond by saying, “I’m just a volunteer.” I always try to nicely correct them. I am the one who should be saying “I’m just an employee.” I get paid to serve the Red Cross. I get paid to serve those who have been through a disaster. They do this because they love the Red Cross, they love the mission, they love helping.

Our CEO really struck a chord with me during her remarks at the event when she said the volunteers are the reason she gets up and goes to work in the morning.

“I don’t like asking for things,” she said. “But asking for things is my job. And I do it because of you. You and your work make me want to ask for things.”

That’s pretty powerful. And it hits home with me because the Celebration of Volunteers is a lot of work. Both in the planning and execution. A lot goes on behind the scenes. A lot. It’s hard. It’s time consuming. It’s comparable to Red Ball, at least when it comes to my role. But the people in the room that night deserve it. My effort pales in comparison to theirs. They make it worth getting up in the morning on days you’d rather not.

So on this day after the Celebration of Volunteers, we are already thinking about ways to make next year’s event even better and ways to improve the entire volunteer experience in general.

So if you’re looking for a place where your volunteerism is needed and appreciated. Where your efforts have a direct impact on lives that you can see. Where you’re part of a small local and large global family consider the Red Cross. Consider being the reason why others go to work in the morning.

Video highlighting volunteer deployments (4 minutes)

Mission Moment from Celebration of Volunteers featuring the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (1 min 15 sec)

a kiss for Savannah

It was 11pm Monday night and I had just settled my 4 month old little girl down for her long night shift of sleep, and handed off monitoring duty of our three year old, who is going through a spell of waking in the night, to my husband, as he stays up a little later than me. It was time for bed, after another long 16 hour day. Little did I know what was to come.

At 1:30am my “bat phone” rang. This is the Red Cross phone. I was serving as “PR on call” for the night and this was “the call”. There was a large fire burning in Coatesville with fatalities, injuries and rooftop rescues. Many people were displaced and our DAT volunteers were on the way. The phone woke the 4 month old, but I calmed her down and handed her off to my husband while I took down the pertinent information. After waking my director to let him know what was going on, it was decided that I would head out to the scene…. I only live about 20 minutes away.

500 block of Chestnut Street active scene approximately 2:45am

When I arrived on scene at about 2:30am, it was pretty chaotic and pouring down rain. But our volunteers were doing all they could to comfort people who had been through a traumatic incident. I was touched by their dedication. One married couple who serve Chester County were on the scene. It was their second response of the night and neither had been to bed, but you would never have known it by the way they continued to serve the mission in a pleasant manner. They inspire me.

Half of the displaced from the fire huddled on a porch of an adjacent building were Mexican and spoke only Spanish. We relied on an interpreter and the children in the crowd to help us communicate the best we could for the time being. Our volunteers took names, handed out snacks, offered blankets, hugs and pats on the back.

I gathered the information that I could from those taking names and making lists and found out we had at least 31 people who would need a place to stay… two more were at the hospital being checked out, but they would likely return and need our help as well… that made 33 and 12 of them were children. One was 7 weeks old…. another just 15 months and the same size as my 4 month old back at home (she’s a beast). It broke my heart, as a mom, to see these kids huddled in their parent’s arms, dressed in their pajamas looking up at their destroyed homes.

I kept my head in the game and watched for the media to show up. I tweeted, I emailed, called to check in with my director and took photos. I kept up on the latest information and was ready when the media did arrive, call, or tweet me back. I stood in the rain for numerous interviews and facilitated a statement from the fire chief for the cameras that were on scene. I was live at 6am with one station…. and stuck around to make sure the morning reporters had the latest information.

During all of that, the decision was made that we would open a shelter a few blocks away. More volunteers had arrived and were working with officials to get keys to the building, supplies from a trailer and get the shelter set up. The residents waited patiently. We were told they would be able to go into their homes to grab some belongings two at a time. It was relatively quiet amongst the porch dwellers. You could hear the loud noise of the fire trucks, a back-up beeping from time to time and the rain and wind. The weather seemed to be getting worse. One of our volunteers grabbed trash bags to hand out to the crowd. It was something they could use put their belongings in when they went into their homes. The volunteers reminded everyone to gather the ESSENTIALS like medications, eye glasses, identification…. things like that.

As the families came out of the burned building with bags full, we worked with the local police to transport them to the community center, which was now set up and ready to accept people. A young officer made numerous trips in his cruiser back and forth until everyone was accounted for.

By this time, the sun was beginning to rise, but the folks were ready for some sleep, so it was lights out at the shelter. I helped hand out some blankets. It’s not my job in disaster response, but I can’t help myself… Seeing little kiddos curled up on Red Cross cots touches my heart and I want them to be as comfy as possible. I gathered the information I needed from those signing folks into the shelter and headed back to the scene to update the media… I wanted to keep the media on scene happy with information from me so everyone could sleep at the shelter.

After the morning news, the second shift of reporters began to arrive, but I needed a break. It was 7am and I was going on 2 hours of sleep and no food. I offered to take the volunteer who hadn’t slept at all home as she and her husband had brought the ERV to the scene and they had no way of getting home. It was out of my way, but the least I could do.

I checked in with the director on my way home and we decided to touch base after I napped.

About 10am or so, I was up again after a maybe 2 hour power nap…. the baby wanted me and my phone started ringing again. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to get any more sleep. I fed the baby, hugged her tight, grabbed some breakfast, kissed my amazing husband and headed back to the scene.

Our vehicles outside of the shelter

By the time I got there, I’d be on my 3rd shift of reporters, and the fire scene would be boarded up… a few stuffed animals placed at the bottom of the steps in memory of the mother and child who lost their lives…  it was surreal.

I was also amazed by the efficiency in the shelter. Volunteers had served breakfast and lunch was on the way. Kids were playing nicely with stuffed animals we handed out and eating popsicles. They were in good spirits after a short night and their parents were doing a great job of staying calm. Caseworkers had arrived on scene to help with the work of transitioning the families to the next location. We had a language barrier, but plenty of folks from Chapter who spoke Spanish were on hand helping to bridge that gap. I was impressed by the resiliency of the folks in need and the dedication and compassion of the Red Crossers there to respond.

We faced obstacles along the way, of course… including a run to the store to buy car seats so we could safely transport families to a nearby hotel and dealing with close quarters and that pesky language barrier.. but in the end, we were able to assist 33 people. We gave them lodging, food, clothing, counseling… and a caseworker to contact for follow up needs. We helped refill prescriptions and even called in our friends at Red Paw to help with a bird and a cat.

It’s not every day that my work is dedicated to the mission like it was this day, but I do cherish these glances at what the Red Cross is all about. My heart aches for those we’re helping, but on responses like these I wonder what if the Red Cross hadn’t been there? Where would these folks have gone? Would they have huddled into cars for the night? Maybe curled up on that porch or tried to get back into their damaged and unsafe homes? The Red Cross was there to alleviate that suffering. We answered that question and put some smiles back on some faces. It’s nice to be able to witness this… but I wish we didn’t have to.

A fire in Coatesville overnight killed a mother and her young son. The fire began in one row home and quickly spread to two others.  The young family was trapped in an upper floor bedroom and unable to escape. According to fire officials, there were NO working smoke detectors in their unit of the building.

A young married couple with a seven week old baby was much luckier. According to an interview the mother gave to CBS3, she and her husband were awakened by their smoke alarm. When they opened the door of their bedroom, they found smoke in the hallway and the stairwell impassible. They quickly pounded on the door of their neighbor to make sure he was awake and able to respond to the danger and then, in order to escape the building, they climbed out their bedroom window onto a roof above a porch. Once there, they called 911 and waited for emergency workers to bring ladders so they could get down. Watch the video of this interview below.

CBS3 Coatesville Fire Coverage

Their call may have saved other neighbors in the building. When firefighters arrived, they found eight people on the porch roofs and several still inside the building.

The Red Cross is helping 38 residents who were displaced by the fire with food, shelter and other basic needs.  Eight of those people were children. The working fire alarm warned residents in time and allowed them to call for help for themselves and their neighbors.

Coatesville Fire Chief Lentz says in the CBS interview, “if there were working smoke detectors throughout this occupancy, the outcome may have been different.”

The Red Cross will continue to do everything we can to make sure that people are prepared for a fire disaster. The first and most essential step is to make certain your home has a working smoke detector with fresh batteries, preferably one on every floor.

Beyond that, it is important to have a plan of escape in case of fire. The family with the infant and others who were rescued on the porch roofs did the right thing: they found a method of egress that worked, they called 911, and they waited for rescuers to help them.

We urge you to be more informed about fire safety. Please read all about smoke alarms and escape routes on our website here. A document explaining the risks posed by fire is here.  A fire prevention and safety checklist is here.

Fox News interviewed a neighbor who was deeply shaken by the tragedy. She had wise words for all of us when she said, “fire is so fast and it’s so devastating you can’t do a thing but run. Life is lost, that’s the worst. You can bring back things but you can’t bring back a mom and her baby. This is so sad.”

Doppler Radar over Maryland on Friday June 30, 2012

This is a hard one, folks. None of us wants to think our family will face a serious situation such as a fire or weather related calamity. But the truth is that part of preparation involves making a plan and involving everyone concerned in the details.

I was thinking about disaster preparation this past June when I awoke in the middle of the night to a cacophony of wind that sounded like an enormous freight train was passing ten feet from my bedroom window. Our family was staying at my parent’s house on the Maryland Eastern Shore for the weekend, very near the town of Cambridge. Shocked by the noise level, I reached for my smart phone and pulled up a satellite map. What I saw surprised and alarmed me; the entire length and breadth of the Chesapeake Bay was covered in the bright red that these maps use to indicate a severe weather event. Usually, this type of map display looks more like a thin series of green bubbles interspersed with red to indicate thunderstorm activity. I had never seen a broad swath of red, as if the state of Maryland was wearing a sash across its center. I have always enjoyed the fury of summer storms. Thunder and lightning have never been frightening. This time, I was afraid and it was a terrible feeling.

My fear was for my family. We never talked about what we would do in a weather emergency while visiting grandparents. We had some good conversations when Hurricane Irene came through the Philadelphia area – our house has a basement, we have an emergency kit, each person had a role. The house in Maryland has no basement, just a crawl space. Tornadoes are rare in this part of the world or, at least, they used to be. The red on the map looked exactly like the kind of event that could harbor – if not tornadoes – than winds of enormous destructive force. I lay there and listened for the uptick in wind tone that would tell me I had to gather everyone in the house and find an interior room. It would be difficult; none of us had ever contemplated such a situation before and everyone would be alarmed and confused. We had never discussed anything like this. My parents, children of a time with gentler weather patterns, do not have an emergency kit that consists of more than some bottled water, a flashlight with dubious batteries and a candle. Thank goodness the wind stayed at a dull screech and we were lucky.

According to the National Weather Service, what occurred in Maryland on Friday, June 30th,  2012 is referred to as a derecho. Before it came to scream outside my bedroom window, it had already brought serious destruction to cities on the Western Shore: Baltimore, Washington, DC and extensive suburbs. We now know that thousands of people in those metropolitan areas lacked power for the entire week following the derecho, during one of the most serious heat waves of the year.

We live in a time of changing weather patterns. Places that used to be “safe” from severe weather might no longer be able to claim that distinction. When I spoke to my family the next morning, I did not focus on my fear or the increased risk. Instead, we talked matter-of-factually about “the plan” if something like this happens again. We picked an interior room, we talked about how to turn off utilities and  we made a list for a new emergency kit. We involved everyone in the discussion, from my 68 year old parents to my four –year-old nephew. Everyone felt empowered. We all felt less anxious. It was time well spent.

I urge you to check out what the American Red Cross has to say about making a plan and disaster preparation. Be safe; be prepared.

Ginny Kremer

Ginny Kremer, a Southeastern Pennsylvania Red Cross volunteer caseworker and supervisor, was deployed to New York City on September 19th, 2001. Initially, she was at the Red Cross offices in Brooklyn, NY before being deployed to a shelter at Ground Zero. There, her job was to help individuals and families in the surrounding area who were displaced by the disaster. Her shelter provided food, clothing and financial assistance for people who were unable to get into their apartments. This is typical Red Cross casework but Ginny is careful to say that most 9/11 casework also involved emotional support. She tells the story of one gentleman who got past police barriers, eager to retrieve something in his apartment, found an airplane seat that had blown in through one of the windows and was traumatized.

During her time spent at Ground Zero, she ate breakfast with other volunteers (Red Cross, firemen, and police officers) on a boat in the harbor maintained by the City of New York and the American Red Cross. She tells how all volunteers ate every morning in complete silence out of respect for the enormity of the loss despite a difficult time of trauma, uncertainty and bomb threats. One morning during the silence, a man stood up on a chair and began to sing, “Proud to be an American”. It was Lee Greenwood. He was among several celebrities who visited the boat to help lift the spirits of those who spent their days at Ground Zero.

After four days, Ginny was sent uptown to the shelter at Pier 94 to work with the families of the deceased. There, she supervised a team of 32 volunteers who were providing comprehensive support for those who had lost loved ones in the attack. Red Cross casework usually involves a 15 minute interaction with a client to assess needs and find resources.  Ginny reports that meetings with the families lasted much longer. First, there was the necessary acceptance that the loved one had passed, often without the benefit of physical remains. Then, there was the preparation of the death certificate and the provision of services such as food, shelter, financial assistance and funeral planning. But the meetings with the families never ended there; they often went on for hours as families shared memories, photographs, and worked through their grief and horror.

Ginny Kremer (right) with SEPA volunteers Drew Alexander and Liz White. Liz also worked in New York as a Red Cross volunteer following the 9/11 attacks.

Ginny still talks about her team with enormous pride. She says the Red Cross was careful to provide support to caseworkers. Team members looked out for one another, were honest when they needed a break and generous about giving others a few hours off. The Red Cross was careful to provide mental health support to volunteers and vet technicians brought in dogs for animal therapy. Ginny swears by a good long cuddle with a loving golden retriever.  She says she met many wonderful volunteers from all over the country, but the people who stick in her head are the families. She became close to several of the families from the Pennsylvania area and has since returned to New York to attend memorial services with them.

She says thousands of Red Cross volunteers were deployed all over New York City in the weeks after 9/11 and the organization was stretched thin. She herself spent three weeks in the City and then came home for two weeks before returning again to relieve the burden on others.  She remembers being exhausted but also honored to help.  She remembers hundreds of Red Cross shelters where ordinary New Yorkers could get free coffee and donuts. She remembers hearing bagpipes every day, all over the city, as New York began to honor its dead.  As a long time Red Cross volunteer, she is proud to have been of service.
-Ginny Kremer
is a longtime volunteer with the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
This blog is written by Sarah Peterson, another volunteer who spoke with Ginny about her experience volunteering at Ground Zero in the days, weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks.

I was deployed, after working for the Red Cross for barely a year, to the World Trade Center operation around the middle of October to work in Logistics.  The SEPA chapter sent so many volunteers and employees I can’t recall, plus its entire crew of Americorps members who had just started their term with us.  Meanwhile at our own chapter office, we had dozens of volunteers working every day running phone banks because the New York chapter was overwhelmed with call volume.

It was my first time travelling for a large national operation, and from the first day it was an absolute blur of activity.  There was no down time to relax and get comfortable, with my bag still on my shoulder I was whisked to a conference room in the Brooklyn HQ for an orientation, then brought to the logistics area and assigned my task:  Transportation.

The Red Cross had well over five hundred vehicles assigned to a dozen or more locations on the job from rentals to chapter vehicles to personal vehicles.  My job was to track every one of them, where they were and their maintenance status and rental contracts and who had the keys and where they were parked and how many new, mysterious scratches there were today.  I was there for three weeks and by the beginning of November there were still vehicles showing up every day that had been there since the beginning without our knowledge.  It was an amazing lesson in the inherent chaos of disaster work.

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Some of the chaos happened because when the towers fell, volunteers began driving from just about anywhere within driving distance to NYC.  They didn’t wait until they were called, they didn’t fill out deployment paperwork.  They just hopped in their chapter ERVs (Emergncy Response Vehicle, big red truck) and other chapter response vehicles (SUVs, vans) or even their own cars.  The Red Cross also rented vehicles like passenger vans, delivery trucks and sedans for transporting supplies, shuttling workers to and from Ground Zero or to attend meetings with local officials.

Manhattan rush hour traffic is a nightmare in the best of circumstances, now imagine dozens of city blocks restricted, emergency vehicles parked in creative places and an influx of tourists like never before.  The number of minor collisions alone was enough to keep me at my desk for hours every day, add to that lost keys, lost contracts and even lost vehicles!  The days flew by, the supervisor who trained me left the scene three days after I got there which made me the “expert”, but by the end of my three week term I wished I could have signed on for another three weeks.

On a personal level, it was one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences I’ve ever had.  The work was constant and challenging with only general guidelines on how to solve such unpredictable problems that arose, which encouraged and necessitated creativity and initiative.  Fortunately we found ourselves well-staffed so some of my expected 12-hour days were more like 9 hours which gave me a chance to explore Manhattan for the first time.  I could go on and on, so many stories and experiences, it definitely changed the way I saw the work of the American Red Cross.

– Sean McGarry
is still with the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania as a Disaster Services Specialist

On September 11, 2001 I was attending a client casework class at the SEPA chapter headquarters. The manager of preparedness came down to the class and informed me that an accident had occurred at the World Trade Center. Upon arriving on the bridge (SEPA Chapter’s emergency communications center) I saw the building that had been hit by an airplane. I told everyone that this was an attack not an accident. I based this upon the fact that the building had been hit once prior by terrorist as a symbol of American capitalism and decadence.  Probably no later than a half an hour the other building was attacked by the jet airliner.

As a retired soldier, the attack upon the Pentagon was extremely poignant to me due to the fact I had worked in the building during my military career. This attack for me confirmed totally that this was a coordinated effort against our country.

All the phone lines in the chapter began ringing as soon as these events occurred. Many individuals from Bucks County worked in the facilities and many family members were trying to make contact.  Additionally, all phone lines were overwhelmed and out of service in the New York area of operations.

At that time, I was a DAT (Disaster Action Team) leader. The director of emergency services, assistant director of emergency services and Chapter leadership wanted to be prepared for anything here at headquarters, so I was directed to begin the process of preparing the building from a possible follow-up attack. We took the vehicles present at the chapter and created a ring around the building to stop the possibilities of a vehicle type of attack. The entrance of the driveway was blocked and a guard was present manning the entrance into the parking lot.

The most important thing that came out of this for me was the fact that everybody wanted to provide some type of service at this time to the Red Cross and country. Every agency or organization offered some type of assistance to the SEPA chapter. Every American had been touched by this event and the best that we could do arose from us on this day.

– Terry Johnson
is still an employee at the American Red Cross of SEPA
he’s now the Manager of Disaster Services

I was home that day watching morning TV news and I saw the whole thing.  I didn’t travel up to the site until probably the first week of November because I waited until the Client Casework Supervisor Course was given .  Finally I arrived in New York and after going to chapter headquarters just over the bridge in Brooklyn, I received an assignment very close to the Trade Center remains.  Chicken hearted as I was then, I chose not to see the site when offered the opportunity.  We worked in the basement of a union hall along with the mass care team.  It was my first deployment as a client casework supervisor so I did not really get to work with many clients, just the problems and the paperwork and approvals.   One man asked for help with securing safety equipment since he was working on “the pile.”   Most of what I did was in support of caseworkers who are called “Service Associates.” The weather was cold in NYC.  One day while outside seeking a lunch spot, I looked up and saw stuff falling from the sky. “Look”, I said, “it’s snowing.”  Someone near who heard my comment said, “That’s not snow; it’s ash from the trade center.”  After a week and a half, our service center was moved up to the telephone company site on Canal Street.  Our clients were people who lived or worked below Canal Street.  Their lives and incomes were also interrupted. I stayed on the job until the day before Thanksgiving.  Thankfully, I went home to my family gathering and no one was missing.
– Carol Barnett
is a long-time SEPA Chapter volunteer who served as a Client Casework Supervisor in Manhattan following the events of 9/11/01

I’m a Jersey girl, grew up in Jersey City with a view of New York City from the park down the street from my family’s home.  Family and friends either helped build, worked at or were part of the rescue and clean-up at the World Trade Center.  I even attended the very first gala in the beautiful Windows of the World.

I was busy packing for my move to Philadelphia from New Hampshire which would take place on September 14th, Friday, but first there was Tuesday. There were lots of phone calls and sadness that Tuesday.  I still was making my move on Friday and I remember the car ride was fast until we reached the Tappan Zee Bridge, then it seemed like time stopped.  Down the Hudson was a dark cloud of smoke just laying over New York.  The scene was chilling and to this day the memory is crystal clear with all the emotions I felt that day.

I remember asking God what can I do.

After getting settled in Philadelphia, I visited  family and friends of those lost or injured.  I then went to a temp work agency seeking employment.  The agent said they had a temporary assignment at the American Red Cross helping with processing after 9/11.  I looked up and said “I got the message” and when I reported for the assignment I told everyone that would listen that I was not leaving at the end of the assignment.

During the days following 9/11, I did more than I could imagine at SEPA Chapter. So much more than answering phones and recording data.  I spent some early mornings collecting money in front of City Hall and I remember the cabbies stopping and donating their tips from the night before.  I went to lunch rooms in office buildings in the counties surrounding Philadelphia to leave materials and collect not only donations but names of new volunteers, (everyone wanted to help in some way). While walking to and from SEPA Chapter wearing Red Cross gear, I remember people in their cars would beep their horns and yell thank you or want to give you a donation. Just seeing my coat was enough.

Now, eleven years later, family and friends are still recovering from the mental and physical scars of that Tuesday.  Me, I’m still at the Red Cross.

-Cathy Castrovilly
is a full time executive assistant to the Chief Development Officer at the American Red Cross of Southeastern PA. She never did leave after her temp position ended.