American Red CrossIntro: Meet Elisabeth Rohm
Why the American Red Cross?
I think the Red Cross is the most important agency of help in the world, with a core mission of alleviating human suffering. But my own relationship with the Red Cross is very specific—it comes from a deeply vulnerable, very human story. When I was in college, my mother's farm in Ava, Missouri, caught on fire. The roof was destroyed. She was not in a financially good position and the Red Cross helped her to rebuild the roof. Then, when I was on Law & Order, they asked me to participate with the Give 100 campaign [in 2005]. My mother said, "Lis, I've never told you this story, but if you could repay my debt of gratitude back to the Red Cross..." It makes me emotional to think about it.
What was the Give 100 campaign?
It was really brilliant. The concept was to educate the public that every person has something to give—whether it's 100 pennies, 100 hours... or $100 million! Just give whatever you could give. Another reason why I think it's so genius is because the campaign gets into the DNA of the organization: The American Red Cross is not defined by one element of helping others. Human kindness is really where the Red Cross began—a bedrock of being there in moments of crisis and disaster—but there's a specificity to every situation and the Red Cross meets those needs, do you know what I mean? From just giving somebody a hug to helping a family reunite with their loved ones.
Could you tell us more about that?
It's not like the Red Cross goes out and fixes people's houses, but that's what my mother needed—financial help fixing her roof. Some people might just need a hotel room for the night; others, emotional support. I've walked through homes that have been ripped apart by typhoons and we've helped people rebuild. For wounded warriors injured on the battlefield—we are on the front lines as first responders. When I was in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the work for the day was getting generators out to families who had children on life support because the electricity was down.
There's a strategy to mobilizing the response to disasters that's very well thought out. The Red Cross is also very well coordinated with other agencies responding to disasters, so we're able to help connect the dots for people to access resources we might not be able to provide directly.
Are you always engaged in disaster relief?
My trips to Cambodia and Vietnam were very different. I went there with the Red Cross not for disaster relief, but more of a health and human services program, which was focused on maternal and infant health. We were going into different villages, in very remote areas, for about two weeks. We brought food and water and, at one school, even implemented new technology for water.
One day we went into this small town in Vietnam and brought food, canned goods, vitamins… I remember being in this hut with all these women who had walked miles to meet us. We were holding their children and laughing. You know, we didn't speak the language but were communicating with our eyes and body language. I just remember warmth and love, and eye contact, between myself and the others.
My mission with the American Red Cross is to help people recognize that they have a place as a volunteer. Hometown Heroes came out of a conversation with Timothy Greenfield Sanders, the photographer. He was asking me what I was up to after Law & Order and I told him I was doing a lot with the Red Cross—at the time, I had really spent a good year or two working nonstop with them. He said he wanted to do something, too. So we talked about pulling the veil off of volunteerism—meaning that everybody can be a volunteer—and to capture that in a portrait.
We brought in celebrity volunteers, like Julianne Moore and Jamie Lee Curtis, and photographed them with local volunteers. The message: Every volunteer stands shoulder to shoulder, equally. Let's unify what hometown heroes look like—they look like you, they look like me. Everybody can be a hometown hero.
Everybody who's suffering needs another human being, and they need that human touch more than they need anything. Going to the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in D.C. with the Red Cross and meeting the wounded warriors there—this is what I'm talking about. Sitting with them and having a conversation—this is humanitarianism at its core.
I remember going with the Red Cross to a house fire in the Bronx, after I had been trained as a disaster response volunteer, and sitting on a stoop with this woman who was torn up because she couldn't find her cat. It was late, after midnight, and I was with this woman, helping her call her cat. I thought, nothing is more beautiful than this interaction. Every memory I have of working with the Red Cross is not just about being a humanitarian, but about the human beings I meet that I will never forget. At the end of the day, it's the human relationships that define the Red Cross.
Every memory I have of working with the Red Cross is not just about being a humanitarian, but about the human beings I meet that I will never forget.
My intention was to work for the American Red Cross, not just be a representative. That was one of the most exciting moments in my life—to make that decision and go through that process. Making that commitment to the cause is not only fulfilling, but it builds your character and your self-respect deepens.
I don't find it hard at all. I find it so uplifting, I wish I could volunteer every day. I love doing it.
You learn it at home—that was my experience anyway. My mother, Lisa, was a philanthropist. She was a hippie. She was a deep believer that we have to help each other and help ourselves. We can't sit back and wait for a great life to land on our lap. We have to make it happen and help others. That's it. You teach your children by doing. Children who see their parents being philanthropists realize that it's not an option. It's not something you choose to do; you must do it.
I'm just getting started. I've spent 15 years educating myself on the organization and been privileged enough to step into so many aspects of the American Red Cross—but I'm just getting started on the volunteerism I want to commit to. So for me, it's the beginning.