Jennifer Lazo

Jennifer Lazo surveys damage to an Alabama neighborhood while doing outreach work in the aftermath of tornadoes that struck in April. (Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross)

A local Americorps volunteer working with the Red Cross returned recently from aiding victims of April’s devastating tornados in Alabama, following a career path inspired while she was a student at La Cañada High School.

Jennifer Lazo, 24, helped coordinate emergency outreach and relief efforts throughout northeastern Alabama for two weeks following the April 27 storms, which that leveled neighborhoods and claimed more than 200 lives.

She worked to provide ready-to-eat meals and services referrals at various relief centers and also canvassed neighborhoods to identify victims’ needs.

“Sometimes they were just sitting on a chair that they pulled out of a pile of rubble that was what remained of their houses,” said Lazo. “You couldn’t always identify exactly where you were at any given time, because everything was blown away. You might be at a house, but it could be 500 feet from where it was before.”

A member of the LCHS Class of 2005, Lazo became interested in emergency response work after participating in the school’s longstanding Institutes for the 21st Century program, in which groups of students meet once a week after school with professional volunteers who mentor them in abouttheir evolving disciplines.

Topics for the program, which also coordinates student internships, have included business, astronomy, cancer research, ecology, law, government and the arts, said program coordinator Sally Spangler, the school’s college counselor.

Lazo’s Institutes mentor in the disaster response field was former La Cañada Flintridge Emergency Services Coordinator Andrew Pachon.

The experience led Lazo to work for the Fire Safety and Emergency Planning Office at USC while she was a student there, and after graduation she took night classes to become certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) before joining Americorps in August 2009.

Americorps, a federal volunteer service program, assigned Lazo to work at the San Gabriel Pomona Valley Chapter of the Red Cross, which currently has two volunteer responders working in Joplin, Mo., following the deadly tornado that struck there on May 22.

“Jennifer was a focused student and very compassionate. It warms my heart to hear [her work] sprouted out of her experience in the Institutes for the 21st Century,” said Spangler.

Long after the Alabama tornadoes dissipated, victims remained in need of food, medicine and other survival basics while facing the threat of new injuries occuring as they while sift through the rubble.

Lazo recalled tending to a man in Guntersville, Ala., who had broken his wrist while surveying damage around his home and would not have received treatment without the Red Cross.

But for many of those left without electricity and phone service after disaster struck, it seemed to Lazo that just a few minutes of conversation brought some relief.

Along a completely leveled street outside Lake Neely Henry, near Gadsden, Lazo encountered an elderly man who told her that his adult son had narrowly survived the total destruction of his home by hiding in a basement and then had walked or crawled barefoot through a half-mile of rubble to check on him.

“When I said I was from California, they were astonished that someone from outside their state knew what was going on. Some of them didn’t even know about [the widespread destruction in] Tuscaloosa. They were definitely in shock,” said Lazo. “A lot of it was just talking to people. They desperately wanted to tell their stories, and giving them an outlet to do that was one of the most important things I could do there.”

After completing Americorps later this year, Lazo plans to pursue a master’s degree in disaster science and management at the University of Delaware.