By Karen Butz de Leon, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross
Love is found when you least expect it. Lucky for our very own Red Cross DFW casework volunteers, Anna and Paul Gottal, the American Red Cross helped them find each other 18 years ago.
“Okay, well first off, I unequivocally deny any of the allegations my wife makes against me,” Paul joked after being asked how they met. “We met during Hurricane George in Puerto Rico in 1998.”
Paul was a manager at the American Red Cross in Virginia when he was deployed to help with the relief efforts for a level 6 Hurricane in Puerto Rico.
Anna, whose dream was to live in America, was in Florida purchasing land when the storm hit. The instant she was found out about Hurricane George, she flew back home to Puerto Rico to ensure her family was safe.
“Seeing the island from the plane was devastating,” she said. “Everything was completely destroyed — no houses, no forest…when I got to my house, everything was gone. I had lost everything.”
The traumatic experience sparked a desire within Anna to serve her community. She wanted to help ease the despair flooding the island.
“I have to help the people,” she remembered thinking.
And so she did by volunteering for the Red Cross.
Anna was placed in Paul’s unit and was tasked with assisting hurricane victims whose mental health became severely damaged by the storm. It was a perfect fit for Anna, who majored in psychology and sociology during college.
It wound up being a perfect fit for Paul, too, who was grateful to have hired a Spanish-speaker on staff.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t speak much Spanish, and Anna was able to speak enough English to translate to the other folks what it was I needed done,” Paul said. “We continued to work together for three months until the DRO (Disaster Relief Operation) was closed, and I had to come back to the U.S.”
It wasn’t a goodbye, though. Shortly after leaving the island, Paul began traveling back to Puerto Rico to visit Anna. They eventually started dating and married on Valentines Day 1999.
A year later, the newlyweds moved to Washington. It was a new beginning for the couple, but they wound up stationing themselves in familiar territory — the Red Cross. Anna has now been a volunteer for 17 years while Paul has clocked 24 years of service.
While reminiscing on past disaster relief experiences since tying the knot, Paul recalls, “Katrina Hurricane was the most significant event we have been through together. Because there was nothing we could do [as case workers in health and mental services] until the flooding went away [and the victims were ready for recovery]. It didn’t take 3 days or 3 weeks, it took months until we could provide client case work because the people had no place to go.”
The amount of people impacted in Louisiana was so significant that they had to open shelters in Houston, TX, in which both Paul and Anna had helped escort buses with victims in order to get them to a safe place and off of the streets in New Orleans.
Anna and Paul soon moved to Dallas, TX, and Red Cross DFW has been fortunate enough to have them as dedicated volunteers since 2014.
“The Red Cross has changed my life,” Paul said. “It has allowed me to meet my lovely wife and help people.”
And while Anna explains that the Red Cross helped her achieve her dream of living in the United States, she is also grateful for the love it helped her find.
“Thank you [Red Cross] for giving me my husband because I am so happy, and I’ve learned so many things from these experiences and with him.”
Thank you Anna and Paul for your compassion and dedication to the Red Cross.