Katie Ibaraki was 7 or 8 when she barely escaped her Waipahu home, as floodwaters from a sudden downpour rose over her head.
Muddy water filled her eyes, ears and mouth. "I could barely breathe," she said, clearly remembering the thunder and lightning that intensified the trauma nearly 60 years ago.
Later, drenched and shivering, "someone came to hose me down and put a blanket over me," she said. "I saw the red jacket and the Red Cross. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what I’m going to do with my life.’ It had such an impact on my life."
Now 64, Ibaraki has been able to make good on the promise to become an American Red Cross volunteer, and to "make a difference in my own way, one person at a time."
She has been a Red Cross volunteer since 1993, traveling in the U.S. and internationally to help survivors of disasters.
Ibaraki had to put volunteering on the back burner while working as an executive secretary, raising two children and being closely involved with her grandchildren. She retired in 2008 after 41 years of working at the University of Hawaii, and later TV stations KHNL and K5. She embarked on a second career last July at the nonprofit Helping Hands Hawaii.
When Hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai in 1991, Ibaraki wanted to fly over, even if just to hand out blankets, but she wasn’t allowed to go because she was not yet trained in Red Cross disaster relief. She became certified in time to help victims of the Saipan typhoons in 1994 and a torrential storm in New Orleans a year later. She didn’t make it to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, because "I woke up one morning and couldn’t walk" from osteochondritis in her ankle.
"But I went to 9/11. I said. ‘I gotta get to New York,’" Ibaraki recalled. It was an incredible feeling, she said, knowing that "every single person I saw, I could help. …
It feeds my soul; it’s my own personal mission."
"I’m so proud when I wear that jacket," she said of the Red Cross uniform.
As a part-time intake worker for the homeless prevention program at Helping Hands, "it’s just overwhelming," she said. "Each case is different and each case is heart-wrenching. I always get so moved by people in need and trying to help them. People can see my compassion, and I think it puts them at ease. It’s not easy for people to ask for help. A lot of times, I just hold their hands and say nothing, I’m too choked up."
What appeals to her about volunteer work is that "it doesn’t matter what kind of house I live in, what kind of car I drive or where I work," Ibaraki said. "It’s all about how I do my job, how I relate to people — it’s who you are. You’re not being evaluated by anything else."