American Red CrossBehind the Scenes: The Women of ARC
It enables me to engage in community action in a direct way. Because of the privileges of my life, I have the ability to support organizations philanthropically by writing a check. But nobody really cared about my skills before; they only cared about my checkbook. Here, everyone cares about my judgement, my skills, my personality, my ability to get along with people, my ability to persuade people, to create a connection with somebody else. In volunteer work, you don’t get that opportunity often. This gives me a chance to do the actual work and feel like a part of a team. At the end of the day, I know I’ve helped somebody because I’ve looked them in the eyes and I get the hug or the handshake—that’s incredibly satisfying. I love my colleagues here; there’s a real family-like warm environment here. I believe in our mission, and neighbor-helping-neighbor is a very powerful tool. It creates community—which is something we all need to feel.
My grandparents immigrated to America from the U.K. and built retail businesses in a town on the Housatonic River in Connecticut. While I was a child, my grandparents’ stores were wiped out twice by two hurricanes, but they rebuilt their stores each time. The third time, there was a block-long fire that destroyed my grandparents’ stores, which were adjacent to each other. My grandmother had a children’s clothing store and my grandfather had an Army & Navy store. As a child, I remember my dad going to try and salvage inventory after all three of those incidents, and I thought to myself, Gee, this is a terrible moment in somebody’s life. I had a sense of the emotional trauma that these incidents took, particularly for people who had finally scratched out a living and achieved the American Dream, just to have it wiped out by natural disasters, especially on three different occasions. One of the incidents took place just before holiday time, when they were really carrying heavy inventory, so that experience really stuck out to me and really helped me understand how people feel when they experience something that terrible.
After Hurricane Katrina, I thought about volunteering more. I ended up volunteering in New Orleans through my synagogue, we put an organization together and sent roughly 40 people to do rebuilding. I got a taste of volunteering there and then I got a phone call from a Red Cross worker in the spring of 2012 asking if I was still interested in volunteering. By then, I had taken classes, but I hadn’t started training in response. The timing was right, because I had a little more flexibility at that point in my career.
I started disaster training and later, when Hurricane Sandy hit, I was asked if I could volunteer in the Emergency Communications Center (the Red Cross dispatch center for emergency response). I also did some sheltering during Sandy and after the sheltering, I came in to do work in the ECC.
Right after Sandy, I went back to response. Then one day I fell down the subway stairs and I tore the ligaments in my ankle, and I had to stop training for a little while. At the beginning of 2013, I was evaluated, and it was challenging, but I passed the training and I started to come in roughly once a week.
I ended up being responsible for a consulting project for response, how to reimagine the volunteer experience. We interviewed people, we did videos, we did all kinds of charts, and even proposed the [volunteer] academy. We had a whole full-blown presentation and it was met with a lot of enthusiasm. Then it was decided that the organization needed a new response manual drafted, and I was recruited to chair the committee to rewrite the manual.
In addition to disaster response and helping develop procedures and manuals, I get together once a month with people and talk about things we could improve and then introduce those ideas to the general response teams. Because of my legal experience, I’m in the unique position to give and also be a devil’s advocate and push back when I think ideas need to be pushed back. I’ve been in the field so much that it’s not theory, it’s practice.
“Neighbor-helping-neighbor is a very powerful tool. It creates community—which is something we all need to feel.” — Donna Bascom
What’s your single most memorable moment with the organization?
I can’t isolate something; I’ve had so many satisfying, rewarding interactions with families and individuals. I do response on Christmas Eve, and I’ve been at responses where I see Christmas trees thrown into the garbage and wrapped presents floating in the water, and distraught people. If you’re an empathetic person, seeing people having the worst day of their lives, it’s just so incredibly demoralizing. But if you can give a little reassurance and understanding, then you’ve done what you have to do.
Tell us about the very human relationships at the heart of the Red Cross…
I’ve made great friends here--these are relationships that go on way beyond office walls. In terms of client connections, I hope that I’ve made a connection on every response. And one of the things I teach the trainees is, “Do not get down to business until you’ve established a relationship with the client. I know you need to do damage assessment but they’re people first. Ask them, ‘Are you warm enough?’ ‘Do you need something to drink?’ ‘Are your shoes wet?’ ‘What can I do to make you more comfortable?’” The point that’s most essential to communicate is, “Are you clear about what the Red Cross does and doesn’t do?” That’s as important as showing empathy because we are ambassadors of the Red Cross, and when you leave, you want them to say, “This organization helped me in my hour of need.”
I love being given the opportunity to help others in the most incredible way, whether I’m serving a meal, holding a three-month old baby so her mother can rest, giving someone a clean pair of socks, or just sitting and listening to someone’s story. The rewards are immediate for both giver and receiver. And while you may not think giving a meal is an incredible gesture, it is when you come across a person who hasn’t eaten for hours because they are mucking out what’s left of their home. And a clean pair of socks, all of a sudden, is the only pair of clean socks you own after being evacuated from your home in the middle of a hurricane. We are there to let them know we care, that they are worthy and we’ll be with them as they start their road to recovery. We need a little more kindness and humanity in this world, and I love that the Red Cross is my vehicle for delivering that kindness and humanity.
I’ve been deployed with the Red Cross six times, nationally. My deployments include Hurricane Harvey in Texas, the 2017 and 2018 California Wildfires, back-to-back Nor’easters in Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Hurricane Florence in North Caroline, and Hurricane Dorian, which happened mostly in the Bahamas, but we cared for evacuees in Florida. I usually deploy as a feeding or sheltering service associate for two straight weeks at a time with 12+ hour shifts. I also deployed as a public affairs supervisor, a warehouse supervisor, and once was a cross country ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) driver! Occasionally I’m needed at the Disaster Response Operations headquarters to support sheltering or food distribution.
My first deployment was to Texas for Hurricane Harvey in early September 2017. I was a sheltering service associate in a mega shelter in San Antonio that housed several hundred residents who had been affected by the massive flooding. I was assigned food and dormitory tasks, but, as always, no matter what we are assigned to do, a Red Cross volunteer’s main role is to provide care and compassion to those who need it. I served residents three meals a day, provided them with pillows, blankets, and comfort kits containing toiletries plus towels so they can shower and feel human again. I gave out snacks, brought people to the medical team, sat with the elderly and gave out diapers and formula to young families. I also connected them with information and community resources that will help them on their road to recovery. On day eight, I headed to Beaumont, Texas, which was one of the hardest hit towns during Harvey. I was the assistant to the lead for food distribution. We managed the mobile routes for 30 ERVs (Emergency Response Vehicles) driven by 60 drivers delivering thousands of meals that were being produced by two Southern Baptist mobile kitchens pumping out 20,000 meals a day! On the last day of my deployment, I hopped in an ERV to deliver meals myself through the devastated neighborhoods.
My second deployment to the October 2017 California wildfires was unusual. While I usually prefer to serve in the field directly with the affected residents, I was grateful to work and learn yet another facet of a national disaster operation: warehouse operations. Over a two-week period with the help of 650 volunteers and generous donors, we built 2600 wooden sifters and assembled 5,000 fire recovery totes that contained tarps, gloves, masks, eye drops, hand sanitizer and garbage bags in a large warehouse in Sacramento. It was heartening to see how the community wanted to help. We partnered with companies like Apple and Intel as well as community partners, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Boy Scouts. We set up workstations with donated wood from a lumberyard and the local carpenters union sent carpenters over to cut the wood to our specifications. Home Depot gave us a generous donation in order to buy all the tools that we needed, like nail guns and mesh. Building the wooden sifters, which families would use to sift through the ashes of what remained of their homes, helped us be good stewards of our donor dollars. Buying them was prohibitively expensive, but we knew how important it was to give them a way to look for their cherished belongings and give them hope. We wrote messages of love and encouragement on the side of the sifters to personalize them. We also stored many donated and purchased items in the warehouse such as snacks, drinks, flat cardboard boxes for residents to pack any remaining belongings in, ready to eat meals and wheelchairs. And as always, I met some incredible Red Cross volunteers who taught me how to work safely in a warehouse and how to supervise an assembly line. I also learned I am awful with a nail gun, scared of a grinder wheel, but pretty handy with a drill and pallet jack!
“What do you say to someone who not only lost their home but their entire town as well? What do you say to someone who has seen the unspeakable?” — Vivian Moy
My most recent deployment was to a West Palm Beach shelter in September 2019. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, boatloads of evacuees from the Bahamas were arriving in Florida. The Red Cross opened a shelter for those evacuees, and I had the privilege of providing them food. It was the first time I had the opportunity to care for an international population, and we worked hard to serve the foods they are accustomed to. For example, because the Bahamas was formerly a British Colony, we always made sure to have tea available.
I remember one family who had arrived at the shelter in the wee hours of the morning. They told me about the challenges they encountered as they stood on line for almost 30 hours to get on a boat that was leaving the Bahamas. They were so exhausted when they arrived in Florida, they couldn’t even eat. I made sure to set aside food for them when they finally woke up. To quote Chef Jose Andres of World Central Kitchen, whom the Red Cross partners with, "There is power in a humble plate of food."
It’s so hard to pick one single memorable moment with the Red Cross. We call those “mission moments” and my deployments were full of them. When I’m exhausted after working a 14-hour shift and haven’t slept enough or had time to eat enough, I draw my strength from those moments. They keep me going and it’s incredibly hard to say one was more memorable than the other. It could be as simple as giving someone a new tube of toothpaste or singing Happy Birthday to a homeless man staying in one of our shelters. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture… it just must mean something to the receiver, who quite often is experiencing the worst day of his or her life. So I’ll share two moments that made me extremely grateful for the Red Cross and all that we do…
One day during my Camp Fire deployment I was in the dormitory chatting with one of the elderly residents. A man named William collapsed a few feet away from me. I will never forget the sound he made as he hit the floor and the sight of him lying there. While we are all trained in first aid and CPR, I ran to get medical help, which was only a few feet away as we always have Disaster Health Services volunteers in our shelters. He was able to get medical attention immediately and literally just five minutes prior, a few volunteers from headquarters had dropped off an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) to the shelter. I couldn’t have been more grateful that we had this piece of equipment at the time and for medically trained volunteers that I could turn to.
My second memorable mission moment came in May 2017. Worldwide, the Red Cross is present in 192 of 195 countries. I had the opportunity to observe the Italian Red Cross as they cared for the thousands of migrants who were arriving into their country. The British Red Cross were training the Italian volunteers to spot the warning signs of human sex trafficking, especially in young girls. As a parent, I shudder to think of what their young lives would be like if the Italian Red Cross volunteers weren’t trained in how to spot potential red flags and indicators. These volunteers were the last line of defense in preventing them from entering a lifetime of sexual slavery. I’m so proud to be volunteering for an organization that not only alleviates human suffering but takes proactive steps to protect life, health and human dignity.
Red Cross volunteers are the heartbeat of the Red Cross and they make up 90 percent of our workforce. They are the most selfless and giving people you will ever meet. When you spend hours and hours working alongside people who feel as strongly as you do about a particular cause, you can’t help but develop strong relationships. What makes the Red Cross so special is this trusted connection between volunteers, and the connection we develop between the volunteers and those we care for. Sometimes it doesn’t take long for someone to tell you their story or ask for your help. But sometimes it takes days before they are ready to confide in you or even call you for help after their immediate needs are taken care of. When it does happen, you feel so thankful they reached out to you. This is our mission: to alleviate human suffering.
I met Brandi in the women’s shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico, CA. Brandi lived in Paradise her whole life—it's where she worked, got married, had a child, went to church and went to school. She loved her town like I love Port Washington. She tearfully told me she was in a state of grief for so many things: the loss of her home and friends, her way of life as she knew it and for losing her peace of mind. She told me the nightmares hadn’t started yet because she wasn’t able to sleep since the day of the fire. That morning her dog Boss had woken her up just in the nick of time as the next-door neighbor’s house was already on fire. Despite being early morning, the sky was pitch black except for the flaming red embers that were falling. There were explosions every few seconds from gas tanks, propane tanks, and transformers. They had to abandon the first car they tried to evacuate in because the back tire exploded from the intense heat. After more than a few anxious moments where they were gridlocked in traffic and thought they would have to make a run for it, the congestion eased. Only by driving through a wall of fire on the road and passing cars and people on fire did they manage to escape with their lives.
We don’t normally let pets stay in the dormitory areas of a Red Cross shelter. We usually have a separate pet shelter or a separate area within a large shelter to house and take care of them. Because the Paradise fire was a mass casualty event, we allowed owners to sleep with their dogs right next to them. Boss had stopped eating for two weeks after the fire. He was traumatized as well and we felt that, above all, what they needed was each other. We have rules for a reason, but sometimes you must throw them out the window and do what you know is right. Brandi was deeply grateful to have Boss right by her side every day and night, uncaged. They were helping each other heal and I could tell Brandi felt comfortable telling me her story. Getting it all out was therapeutic for her and it confirmed what I’ve come to realize over the years. That the best thing I can do for a person—regardless of the job I was sent to fulfill—is to show them that someone cares. To sit, actively listen and really be present. To not offer a solution right on the spot but to say, "I’m sorry you have to go through this. You won’t be alone. We are here with you." After all, we don’t have to lose our homes in a disaster to understand the feelings of loss, despair, and hopelessness. I think of her and Boss often when I think back to my Camp Fire deployment. As with all my deployments, I get to see firsthand the best of humanity. I can’t think of anything better than that.
“I’m so proud to be volunteering for an organization that not only alleviates human suffering but takes proactive steps to protect life, health and human dignity.” — Vivian Moy
What first led you to the Red Cross?
In 2012, my town lost power for three weeks after Superstorm Sandy hit Long Island. The Red Cross initially opened an overnight shelter at our high school, but, ultimately, there wasn’t a need to shelter anyone in our immediate area. Instead of closing the shelter, myself and several other community members kept the high school open as a day shelter. We served three meals a day from food donated by local restaurants, enabled residents to charge their phones and get up-to-date information about the power outages. We also held exercises classes, organized a coat drive, threw a Halloween party for the kids and streamed the presidential election. It was a place for the community to gather during a difficult time. The shelter was so successful, we ultimately formed a nonprofit organization that is now a Ready When the Time Comes partner group with the Red Cross. We then became involved in their home-fire preparedness campaign and I’ve been volunteering ever since.
And what keeps you volunteering with them?
Apart from a strong devotion to our mission to alleviate human suffering, I can’t think of a better way to spend my free time than being in service to others. It gives me a profound sense of purpose and joy to bring light into someone’s darkest day. I think my favorite quote from Martin Luther King also sums up why I keep volunteering with the Red Cross. He said, “Make a career of humanity… It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can. It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man… You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
I love meeting new people and doing a lot of The Pillowcase Project presentations because, for me, it’s very important to teach the kids what to do in an emergency. We let them know that the policemen and firemen are your friends, that these are the people who will help you.
In 2003, on the second day of the big blackout in New York, I had a fire in my home. My son was playing with matches, trying to find his way around the house. Something in his room caught on fire and, in the process, because he was afraid, he hid in his closet and lost his life. After the fire marshal told me the news, he told me that the Red Cross was there. They picked me up and took myself and my other kids to their Manhattan office and they sent the spiritual care volunteer to see me. It was comforting knowing all these people were there to help me. They offered to put me in a hotel if I needed a place to stay. It all meant a lot to me, even though I had a place to stay (at the home of my youngest son’s father). At the time I had five kids and was pregnant with another one.
The Red Cross helped pay for a portion of the funeral expenses, which I found helpful, since I had lost everything, literally. At that moment, I wasn’t financially well-off and they gave me vouchers to Sears, so I was able to replace some clothes. The community really helped, too. I wanted to pay it forward and help other parents during a d.
In May of 2017, I applied to become a volunteer at the Red Cross after I had done some research on free smoke alarms and found out that the Red Cross provided this service. I scheduled an appointment and two volunteers came to my home. They told me that they were looking for volunteers and recruited me. I signed on and joined the Home Fire Campaign and, later, the Individual Community Preparedness team. Then I joined AmeriCorps.
When I go out to teach preparedness, hands-only CPR or The Pillowcase Project, I go out to schools or community centers to help people learn how to prepare for emergencies. With Pillowcase Project, I’m teaching kids what to do if there’s a fire, how not to feel bad and not to hide. I’m teaching kids the same age my son was about emergency preparedness. Showing them what to do in case of an emergency makes me feel proud; hopefully, I'm preventing the situation that happened to me.
Everybody loves to help out in their own way. Everyone is kind and caring, and it makes me feel like what I do is worthwhile, because you’re in a very welcoming environment; it makes it extra special.
I also made a lot of connections through the Home Fire Campaign, especially while teaching people about smoke alarms—what the hardwires are, where the batteries are, what the sound is that notifies you the batteries need to be changed… that’s what saves lives. People are welcoming. They’re ecstatic to see you and thank you. They’re shocked and touched by the fact that volunteers are doing this. Sometimes you get people who ask, “Why are you doing this?” When they hear my story, they understand why I do this, and why there needs to be a working smoke alarm in every household. It makes them realize how important it is.
“Showing [the children] what to do in case of an emergency makes me feel proud; hopefully, I'm preventing the situation that happened to me.” — Jesennia Rodriguez
What’s your single most memorable moment with the organization?
When I was working in an evacuation shelter in Florida after Hurricane Irma, I met a young 14-year-old girl, who was going through a very bad situation and was suicidal. At the shelter, I was helping her mother with translations when she mentioned how her daughter was feeling. When I found out about the situation, I asked to step away from the conversation and started crying.
At that time, the girl comforted me. I had told her, “Please, while I'm here, do not let me find out that you’re going to do anything to harm herself.” I told her, “I just learned about your situation and I think you’re a very bright young girl, and you should never end up harming yourself. If you need help, ask. If you’re feeling sad, just ask. I'm here for you.”
While I was there, I would always make sure that she was okay. When I left, she wrote me a letter thanking me for the time, for leaving my own family to be with hers. I didn’t want her to feel hopeless.
And most important you’ve taught to children?
Coping skills. Learning how to be calm and relaxed in an emergency is very important, too. I teach hands-only CPR too—this is something essential for people of all ages to know.. My brother passed away at his home in February of 2018, because no one knew how to do CPR. Those first moments are very critical in saving someone’s life.