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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Helping our military members here and around the world

The original mission of the Red Crossrco_blog_img_dion started in the 1800’s with services that helped military members and their families. Clara Barton assisted our armed forces both during and after the Civil War.

That same spirit continues today the American Red Cross dedicated Service to Armed Forces program. Today Red Cross volunteers across the United States and around the world are ready to help service members and their families cope with deployments, assist them with critical community and financial services and provide comfort to veterans in crisis.

Allison Dion from Paxton, Mass., has volunteered with the Red Cross for more than a year, focusing on the work we do serving military families and veterans.

“I first attended an event gift wrapping hats and scarves for the Warmer Winters program to support the local veteran population during the cold months,” said Allison. “I wanted to give back during the holidays, and while at the event, I was informed of some volunteer opportunities which sparked my interest.”

The American Red Cross military and veteran services are aimed at preventing, preparing for and responding to the unique challenges that arise as a result of the deployment cycle and beyond. Local Red Cross offices provide holistic casework and coordination of resources to clients with specific needs. This key Red Cross service ranges from responding to emergency needs for food, clothing, and shelter to referrals to counseling services (e.g., financial, legal, mental health), respite care for caregivers, and other resources that meet the unique needs of local military members, veterans and their families. Through partnerships with key community partners, Red Cross caseworkers identify clients’ needs, connect them to the most appropriate Red Cross and community resources and ensure follow through.

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“The Service to the Armed Forces program was brought to my attention, and being from a military family myself, I thought this could be a unique way to learn first hand about the various ways the Red Cross is involved with the military community,” said Allison.

The SAF program also offers both pre-deployment and post-deployment programs and resources for the military and their families. Red Cross volunteers use their experience in casework services to help prepare military members and their families for the transition back home after deployment. Volunteers assist with financial paperwork and other services which might seem overwhelming during the transition of pre-or-post deployment.

“As a volunteer with the Service to the Armed Forces, I have the privilege of helping to serve military families,” said Allison. “When talking with a service member’s family, I have heard the sincerity in their voice as they personally thank and express gratitude to the Red Cross for supporting them during a difficult time.  It is incredibly rewarding to play a small part in helping to make a positive impact during a family’s time of need.”

If you would like to volunteer with the Service to Armed Forces program, please go to redcross.org/ma to sign up. There are many opportunities available to help your local community both nearby and around the world.

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Grateful to Serve

Welcome to our new American Red Cross of Massachusetts Regional blog…

Welcome to our new American Red Cross of Massachusetts Regional blog, where we hope to open a window into how much good we do here at the Red Cross and how, each and every day (and night), we help people on what will most likely become the worst day of their lives.

So I went to WordPress today and set up a blog. I mined my daily experiences for little anecdotes, but the overarching theme that kept popping up for me was how grateful I am to be surrounded by such a wonderful, committed and hilarious group of teammates across the Commonwealth. These are the people – both paid and volunteer, who load supplies on our vehicles, draft and redraft planning spreadsheets, and give hugs and hope to families who have lost everything in a house fire at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Then it occurred to me: the Red Cross Family is about giving of themselves.  Sometimes a shoulder to cry on is enough, and we’ve had our fair share of those who make use of ours. Other times, we give food, mental health support, a warm place to sleep. It’s the hope that things will get better that inevitably seems to do an outsized amount of good.

Here’s an interesting statistic: our region deployed a total of 27 volunteers to the Southern States date to assist with the Hurricane Matthew response.  Thirteen of them are still there, sleeping on uncomfortable cots in group shelters eating their meals ladled out of sanitized rubber tubs known in the “trade” as Cambros. That’s thirteen sleep deprived people working 12 hour shifts six days a week with limited access to greens, drowning in coffee and far away from the comforts of home. It takes about a week to detox from these deployments.

Kathleen Connors, a woman from Ontario who went to North Carolina on vacation and returned as a Red Cross volunteer, said about her experience: “it’s great to see the looks on their faces when we say we have toilet paper…”

Sounds glamorous, right?

Actually, what it is is life-changing. Yes, for the people whose lives have been shattered, but also for all of the thousands of people who regularly give whatever they can to help improve the situation of others.  For some, it’s the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee. For others, it’s manning the telephones so that members of our community in need know someone cares. We have volunteers who coordinate teams to rush to fire scenes so that families burned out of their homes have a place to sleep that night. We have volunteers helping military families get through terminal illness, death, or the more general stressors of daily life. For the majority of us, it’s what’s in our hearts that compels us to step up, get up or just show up for the simple end of making a positive difference in others’ lives. Helping feels good. If you don’t believe us, believe the people in this video montage who needed our help the most:

So on this day of thanksgiving, and as you read these forthcoming features about our people and our work, we invite you to consider what you might do to make the world a better place. If you’re looking for ideas, we can certainly help. Get a preview of how you can join our family by going to http://www.redcross.org/volunteer.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.