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COUNTYWIDE FOCUS

Disaster Volunteer Honored for Work

May 22, 1993|PATRICK McCARTNEY

For more than a year, Sharon O'Bryant's life has been one disaster after another.

O'Bryant, honored this week as Volunteer of the Year by the Ventura County Chapter of the American Red Cross, was saluted for her work with victims of the 1992 Ventura River flood and a score of families left homeless by residential fires in the county.

The Santa Paula mother of two also served three-week stints in Big Bear after the Landers earthquake and in south Florida when Hurricane Andrew left thousands of residents homeless.

In her role as a disaster volunteer, O'Bryant arranges for immediate shelter, food and clothing for families, but finds that trauma victims also need reassurance.

"One of the things people need most after a disaster is a hug and a smile," said O'Bryant, who grew up in modest circumstances in Fillmore. "My daddy always told me, 'You may not have a lot to give, but a smile is always free.' "

When the Ventura River flooded in February, 1992, O'Bryant worked to find shelter and aid for many of those who had lived in a makeshift shanty town on the river bottom, which is usually dry. The experience was an eye-opener, she said.

"I met a number of extremely intelligent people there who had carved out a place to live in the bamboo thickets," she said.

"They reminded me of an old hippie commune. If they only had one stove, they all cooked with it. If only one had food, they all shared. They took care of each other."

None of her local experiences prepared her for the Landers earthquake or Hurricane Andrew, O'Bryant said.

Amid the damage, Big Bear residents still joked about naming the town Chimney Falls from the countless toppled chimneys, she recalled.

O'Bryant smiles when she remembers the man whose house was one of the few in his neighborhood to remain on its foundation. Whether it made a difference that he had lassoed the house with a stout rope and tied it to two nearby trees, she admired his ingenuity.

Big Bear, of course, was a small disaster compared to the catastrophe in south Florida when Hurricane Andrew leveled thousands of homes.

"You could drive for miles and miles and not see one house that wasn't damaged," O'Bryant said. "The residents will never forget it."

After doing what she could, O'Bryant said she returned to California with less fear of earthquakes.

"We get rattled a little bit and shake, but then it's over. But to know a hurricane is out there and coming in--that would be terrifying."

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