Originally published in The Oregonian on October 11, 2007. By Jason Simms.
Iris Newhouse says she's a "disasterholic," though luckily, she's never lived through one.
"I don't like disasters, but I like to help people," the 81-year-old explains. She returned a few weeks ago from a flood in DeKalb, Ill. Since 1985, she's been on more than 100 Red Cross deployments.
In addition to apartment fires in town, she has been on three-week volunteering excursions to 35 states as well as Guam, Samoa and Southeast Asia. She also drives as many as 1,000 miles a month delivering blood around Oregon.
Sept. 14 would have been Newhouse's 50th wedding anniversary; her husband died in 1994. The date also marked 50 years that Newhouse has lived in her home on Northeast 106th Place.
She spent part of the day the way she does many days, at Table 11 at the Denny's on Northeast 104th Avenue with some familiar waitresses and friends, mostly Vietnam veterans she met when her now 49-year-old son was a manager there.
The following Sunday, Newhouse found herself in the same booth after church talking about what she calls her "other family," explaining that Red Cross volunteers around the country have taken to calling her Mom.
Q: What's the main thing you've taken away from your hundreds of days of volunteering?
A: In the San Francisco earthquake (in 1989), there was a little couple that came in. They'd been married over 50 years. She sat down, gray hair, her eyes just full of sparkle, and she says, "Well, I told my husband all I ever wanted was a view. That's all I have left's a view." It was true. The house was pretty well gone. All the pictures of her family, things of her children and grandchildren that she'd lost, she wasn't bemoaning that fact. I admired her very much for that. She'd lost so much, but she had a good attitude. It's those people I learn from, or try to anyhow.
Q: Has your experience prepared you for a disaster here?
A: Someday we are going to have a terrific earthquake here in Portland. We just don't know when. But Red Cross is planning for it. We have things on the other side of the river in case we can't cross the river. (We) have places signed up to be shelters.
Q: But emotionally?
A: In Pennsylvania, one man was giving one of our workers a hard time, and I went over there and said something, and he got a little nasty. His wife was trying to shush him up. The next day, he came back and apologized. "I knew that wasn't you," I said. "If this happened to me, if I lost everything like you did, how would I act? I don't know."
Q: A lot of people in their 80s aren't up to saving us from earthquakes.
A: I think I've just been very lucky. I'm overweight, but other than that, I'm healthy. What bothers me is some people (say), "I am so bored. There's nothing to do." There are so many ways to volunteer. There's Red Cross, there's Salvation Army, there's Catholic Charities. If you can't do anything but sit and rock a child, at Emmanuel Hospital, they have that program to rock the kids. Help at the schools. Listen to kids read...Hundreds of places you can volunteer to help people or do something.
Q: Out of all of those, why did you choose disaster relief?
A: I like to travel and also to help, so I thought that would be a good way to do it. One fellow (at a flood in Kentucky) said he didn't want help. And I said, "Well don't you help your neighbor?" He got real upset with me, "Well, naturally!" "Well I'm just your funny talking neighbor from Oregon." I'm the one with the accent in the hills of Kentucky. He said, "OK." That was all right because it wasn't charity. And it isn't charity. It's neighbor helping neighbor.
This is the original blog post linking to the story before the OregonLive url expired.
I really love the chance to tell the story of a single, interesting person. So I jumped at the chance to interview Iris Newhouse, an 81-year-old Portland resident who has been on over 100 Red Cross deployments, for the O.
It sounds cliché, but she truly is an inspiration. She made me want to volunteer, but was also so down-to-earth that she made me not feel bad about doing very little volunteering so far in my young life. “Most people can’t take the time off,” she says of non-retirees. “They have a funny habit of eating and making house payments.”