The Power of Volunteerism

– Below is a written testimonial we received from a disaster victim –

I want to thank the Red Cross for yourrco_blog_img_reading incredibly swift response to the fire at the Old Reading Schoolhouse, in Reading, Mass., Thursday, June 1st.  You and your team were remarkable!

One of your volunteer members, Bonnie Lou, provided something to me that seemingly was impossible; she gave me the gift of hope, a priceless gift that I didn’t think could be given.

Upon arriving at the scene, I witnessed complete chaos and bedlam, as well as a fire – the likes of which I’d never seen (100 fire fighters fought the blaze; 10+ hours to extinguish the fire; the largest fire in the history of Reading, Mass.).

I just needed to get to my two cats.  Shortly after 2 p.m., a fire fighter brought one of my cats to me, my Baby Girl, Wesson.

Through all of the commotion, everyone desperately trying to make sure all people and pets were out of the building, Bonnie somehow reached me and knew I was frantic; an emotion I’d never experienced.

Bonnie was at my side and did everything for me, as if she’d known me my whole life.  My family and friends were with me and did their best to comfort me.  But it was all about the kitties and somehow she knew it…. Bonnie had an animal carrier within a minute and together we put my Wesson in.  Oh, she didn’t stop.  She then found a quiet, cool place in the Red Cross vehicle for me to soothe Wesson.  Bonnie kept going.  She instructed me to take deep breathes, she had an ice cold water in my hand, and she controlled the entire situation around me.

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I kept asking, “Who are You?” and she kept answering, “I’m Bonnie”.  My question was so much deeper…… who just sent this angel from Heaven to Sanborn Street at the most desperate moment of my life?

8 p.m. – The fire still roaring, an alarm was sent out for fire fighters to evacuate the building!  The building was no longer safe.  They would continue to fight the fire, but only from the outside of the building.  People tried to prepare me for the worst scenario.  But not Bonnie.  She kept me breathing and believing.

By 11 p.m., we were told to leave.  The Fire Chief advised us that nobody would be allowed back into the building throughout the night and it would be guarded so that nobody entered. Bonnie kept hope and promised many prayers and I knew she meant it.

At 1:10 p.m., 24 hours after the fire started, I was allowed into the building with a fire fighter, a hard hat, boots and gloves to try to locate my Smith.  And at 1:11 p.m., I had my Smith.

On Monday morning, the Town of Reading set up multiple resources at the Pleasant Street Center for Old Reading Schoolhouse tenants to attend.  When I entered, I saw the bright light of Bonnie’s smile, and heard her voice, “Kattthhhhhhyyyyy, did you get Smiiitttthhhhhhh?”

Did I just hear that right?  She remembered both our names? And when I shouted that I had them both, she cried tears of joy with me.  Again I ask, “Who is this person?”

I am so blessed for the support and kindness of Bonnie and am honored to write this to you on her behalf.  I will strive each day to give comfort to others in honor of Bonnie.

With much respect, thanks and gratitude,
Kathy Gee

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Making a difference for those in need

by Susan Gilbert, American Red Cross of Massachusetts volunteer

Tangley Lloyd grew up in Greenwich,rco_blog_img_dmhConnecticut, and summered in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod. In the late 1990s while at the Cape as an adult, she heard on the radio a man being interviewed about Red Cross disaster relief.  Part-way through the interview, the Red Cross volunteer got beeped and hopped on a plane to a disaster site. Tangley thought herself, “This is great; this is what I want to do!”

Until then all Tangley knew about the Red Cross were raffles and blood drives sponsored by her local Red Cross, promoted by signs and a car in front of the Greenwich chapter building.

After Tangley returned home, she signed up to volunteer. As a licensed therapist and social worker, her mental health background proved an excellent fit for the Red Cross. As a Disaster Mental Health volunteer, Tangley’s mission is to be supportive to clients. She and her team help those affected by disaster “get back up and running,” restoring them to their level of pre-disaster functioning, offering plenty of community resources as needed and available.

Tangley’s first assignment was in 1998, helping out in Oklahoma after it was ravaged by the largest tornado to strike the area. This experience was very special to her because she met Red Cross volunteers from across the United States. While some volunteers came in wheelchairs and on crutches, everyone had a function they could perform and were a huge asset to the relief effort.

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“I was there for two weeks and loved every minute of it. It opened my world to see the generosity of the American people in donating so many needed items, such as diapers and steel-toed work boots. Local people cooked all the food,” Tangley said. “I continue to see these massive group efforts at every disaster, big and small. People give above and beyond what they can. It’s amazing.”

While in Oklahoma, her team would walk through local neighborhoods daily so people would recognize the Red Cross volunteers. Tangley recalls an incident when an elderly woman and her family just needed hugs.

Over Labor Day 2016, Tangley went to Baton Rouge as part of an Integrated Condolence Care Team. Many people had moved to Baton Rouge from Katrina-affected areas after losing everything, including loved ones. “I listened to someone for two and a half hours who’d lost her grandma. It was hard but we were the best of the best, and I’m proud to be a part of the Red Cross.”

In addition to providing relief to disaster victims, Tangley supports Red Cross staff. Many volunteers become tired, especially if they’ve just come from another disaster in another state.

“I love volunteering with the Red Cross, and plan to be a part of it as long as I can. As long as I can still hear, which is key as a mental health professional, I know I’ll be able to help people. It’s very rewarding, and close to my heart. The Red Cross means a lot to me, and there’s a place for everybody.”

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When disasters inspire volunteerism

by Susan Gilbert, American Red Cross of Massachusetts volunteer

Before joining the American Red Cross,rco_blog_img_contee Lisa Contee had never been a volunteer. Volunteerism was brought forward in her mind when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010.

Lisa had what she calls her “Haiti baby” that January, watching on television as members of the Red Cross assisted those most in need in what was one of the worst disasters in in recent history.

Lisa subsequently went to the Red Cross, got her CPR certification and attended a free disaster services class. The introductory class showed potential volunteers how the missions of the Red Cross help people here in Massachusetts during both small and large disasters.

Lisa was hooked. The work the Red Cross does locally was eye opening and exactly what she was interested in doing – lending that helping hand. Immediately after the training, Lisa went to the Cambridge office determined to get a position at the American Red Cross of Massachusetts. Lisa recalls that she “wouldn’t leave until they were down and ready to have me.”

To start, Lisa joined a Disaster Action Team. These teams are made up of volunteers who go out, boots on the ground, and help the clients of disasters – fires, floods, storms – anything that leaves people displaced.

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In 2014 when the Home Fire Campaign was announced, Lisa was one of the first volunteers to receive training to help install free smoke alarms in people’s homes.  She was quickly promoted to supervisor, and today is the lead and mentor to other volunteers interested in both DAT and the Home Fire Campaign.

Aside from DAT and Home Fire Campaign work, Lisa trained and was certified to drive and operate relief operations from Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles. Commonly known as ERVs, these mobile disaster relief and food trucks serve those in need in the hardest hit areas.

Lisa was deployed to the New York City area to support relief operations during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. She enjoyed the hard work and long hours doing and said “it was the hardest physical work” she has ever done.

In March 2017, Lisa went to an early morning fire where a building had collapsed. The collapse displace more than 45 people. The fire started in one unit and spread to several other units, affecting the entire building with either fire or smoke damage. The Red Cross took care of 11 families and worked with the management company to find hotel space for the displaced residents.

Lisa says that moments like these are why she stays with the Red Cross. “People helping out people is all we need.”

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New adventures await volunteers

Phyllis Vincent has been volunteering rco_blog_img_datever since she served in the Peace Corps after college. She joined the American Red Cross in 2010, then found even more time to give when she retired.

Phyllis’s earliest assignments with the Red Cross involved heading to the scene of house fires where she “helped people, found a “good team of people, and got to work.”

Her most memorable Red Cross moment was a fire in Attleboro, Mass., when 22 families needed help. Only three volunteers showed up to help. Phyllis said the experience was intense and lasted eight hours. They worked until the early morning, serving food and making sure that each person had a place to stay.

Several years ago, more than 100 people lost power during a large storm in Fall River and by this time, Phyllis had risen through the ranks to become a supervisor. The task at hand was so large and she knew her team had to come together to protect and serve these people. To her surprise, the community came together well enough to help not only each other, but the Red Cross team as well. It’s moments like this that give Phyllis the steam to keep coming back.

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Phyllis volunteers because she had always felt the need to help people, and because not enough people do it. “I just enjoy helping people, it makes me feel good, and I like to work with dedicated people. That is what the American Red Cross is, a bunch of dedicated people wanting to help others.” Although her family and friends do not understand, she soldiers on, telling them that volunteering is not a hobby, but a lifestyle.

After five years in disaster services, Phyllis decided to try something less likely to get her out of bed in the middle of the night. So she started working in biomedical transportation, transporting blood from drives in Massachusetts to the Biomedical Center in Dedham. She said, “It’s a lot of driving, but it helps people and that’s all that matters.”

Speaking again about her disaster work, Phyllis was once deployed to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. She recalled how shocked she was to see water above the traffic lights and houses filled with mud. But what impressed her was the idea that people had lost everything, yet were still determined to get back to life. Phyllis said it is moments like these that kept her coming back to the volunteering world.

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Giving Back, a Way of Life

by Martine Costello, Red Cross volunteer

* Armed Services Day is May 20th.

Jean Marsilli was a new collegerco_blog_img_afd graduate in 1970 looking to support the troops when she volunteered to go to Vietnam to be an American Red Cross “Donut Dolly.” From the DMZ to the Mekong Delta she traveled by chopper deep into the jungle to remote fire bases to cheer up the soldiers with games, snacks and warm smiles.  She would sometimes see napalm burning in the distance when she landed, surrounded by snipers, as the rotors kicked up the hem of her blue Red Cross dress.

The retired teacher and grandmother is still an active Red Cross volunteer.  She distributed food to flood-stricken homeowners on Long Island after Hurricane Sandy in 2013, and worked at an emergency shelter in Baton Rouge after a catastrophic flood in 2016, putting in 12-hour shifts “with 300 of my new best friends.”

At 68, she never seems to get tired of helping, and today drives a bus to help homeless people get around. She remains ready to travel if misfortune strikes.

What keeps her going? Giving back.

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“We all had our own reasons for going to Vietnam,” she says. “I went because the guys were going and I thought it was important to be there. I volunteer today because I’ve always done it. It’s not something we should do – it’s something we have to do. We have to help each other. It’s an obligation like voting.”

The Vietnam years remain vivid to her. Unlike the USO shows that the late comedian Bob Hope used to do, flying in and out for a whirlwind tour, the Donut Dollies remained in-country. They traveled to remote mountaintops with a 1-acre patch of cleared jungle. The only other visible landmarks were guns and sandbags. The cheeky pilots would keep the rotors going as the dollies would exit the chopper, sending their skirts up in the air in the style of the iconic Marilyn Monroe photo. “I sent home for some colored underwear,” she says with a laugh. But the mood would turn serious when there was word of Viet Cong in the area and the chopper would have to use its long-range gun.  The dollies would put their fingers in their ears until the firing stopped.

“We were morale boosters,” she says simply, shrugging off the danger. “I have always tried to lead my life by helping, and I have tried to instill that in my children and my grandchildren. I try to help people who need it the most. It’s the right thing to do.”

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Saving Lives in Real Time

by Visvajit Sriramrajan, American Red Cross Volunteer

Swift, dedicated, and tireless: theserco_blog_img_hfcare what the Red Cross workers are in a nutshell, and a recent incident in Lawrence proved that their training and quick decision-making skills were enough to save lives. On April 20th, Disaster Program Manager, Deb Duxbury and volunteer Justin O’Mahoney arrived at a home on Howard street for an appointment to install smoke alarms and CO detectors. When they arrived the two began to do a safety check, walking through the home looking for fire hazards and other potential risks.

“The normal process is for the resident to guide us around their house or apartment,” explained Justin. “We check existing smoke alarms to see if they are installed correctly and functioning properly. We then also determine the needs of the residence, install the detectors accordingly, show the residents how to change batteries, and give a preventive brief along with additional Red Cross fire educational leaflets,” he added.

But this time was a bit different.

After completing their work on the first floor, Deb and Justin headed down into the basement. And that’s when they noticed the distinct odor of gas.

The landlord, who was with them, explained that she had smelled gas for a few weeks, but hadn’t bothered to do anything about it. “No smoke or carbon dioxide detectors were installed in the basement of the home,” noted Deb. “Justin and I saw this as an immediate red flag.”

Smelling gas in a home is never something to take lightly. Some clients don’t quite grasp the seriousness of it. “What could go wrong?”, they ask, without realizing that it could mean the difference between life and death. Deb, however, immediately recognized the risk, phoning the fire department and asking the client to evacuate the building. The children and two adults waited in the driveway of the home with Deb and Justin until emergency personnel arrived. The children’s eyes lit up as fire engines pulled into the driveway in almost no time.

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After inspecting the home, Captain Jim Flynn of the Lawrence Fire Department determined there was a notable gas leak, which was subsequently fixed by a local gas company contractor. The resident who lives in the home thanked Deb and Justin for saving the lives of the family that lives there, while the fire department and the gas company both thanked them for the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign that put them in the right place just in the nick of time.

From April 1 to May 3, 2017 the American Red Cross has made more than 240 homes safer in Lawrence through smoke and carbon dioxide detector installations.

  • Note – At a Home Fire Campaign installation in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston May 6, Red Cross volunteers and a member of the Boston Fire Department noted a stove leaking unburned natural gas into a home. The two elderly residents were not aware of the toxic leak. The Boston Fire Department official was able to stop the leak and through the home fire prevention training given during the visit, the homeowner was made aware of silent danger carbon monoxide can be.

The Food Pantry Must Go On

by Visvajit Sriramrajan, American Red Cross volunteer

Thursday, April 6, 2017 was a fairlyrco_blog_img_foodpant busy day at the American Red Cross Food Program distribution, much as it is on any distribution day. But what wasn’t usual was a small accident that occurred that day: a loose piece of ceiling cement fell to the ground and grazed two people: a client and a staff member. Both were taken to the hospital, and thankfully, neither suffered any serious injuries. But in the interim hours, Red Cross staff was shaken, both by the unexpected accident and by the prospect that the Food Pantry would need to stay closed until further notice. According to Food and Nutrition Director, David Andre, the Food Pantry serves hundreds of people each week, providing basic quality foodstuffs to people struggling to make ends meet.

Both shaken and determined, Andre said, “We are the Red Cross —when a disaster strikes, the Red Cross does not close down for repairs.” He continued, “Far too many people rely on us to be open on schedule, and so closing our program for repairs is not a solution.”

While the Red Cross’ Disaster Relief team immediately began offering mental health support to the client and the staff in the pantry during the time of the incident, Andre was scrambling to find a way for the Saturday food distribution – just two days away – to move forward. After dozens of phone calls and back and forth with the city inspectors, the distribution went on as scheduled. But not in the building, which was still under inspection by city engineers. Instead, the pantry went off  as planned in an outdoor market at Clifford Playground, a relatively large park behind the original building.

The event was incredibly successful: forty-five enthusiastic volunteers served an approximated 31,000 pounds of food to 656 families across the Boston area. Thousands upon thousands of food bags were assembled, food receptacles were efficiently wheeled to the park, and intake and distribution areas were neatly set up, all a safe distance away from the repair work being done in the warehouse.

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The Red Cross’ Boston pantry is considered one of the largest pantries in the city of Boston in both the amount of food provided and number of families served. In 2016, the pantry distributed over 1.8 million meals to 122,550 individuals. The majority of the food was fresh produce. About 9,400 families use the pantry during the year.

Although the unfortunate accident that transpired on April 6 caused injuries and building damage, it galvanized the staff and volunteers of the Red Cross of Massachusetts Food Pantry. And thanks to a special permit issued by the City of Boston, the Red Cross was able to stage its food distribution out of the Clifford Playground throughout the month of April.

Through the sacrifice and dedication of the organization’s volunteers, and particularly the pantry staff of Peter Hubbard, Sharon Curry, Bill Hill, and Suresh Mijar, the show must and will (and did) go on.