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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A teddy bear’s comfort on a cold night

by Jim Mosso, DAT Supervisor, Central Massachusetts

Just before 5 p.m. on a cold Monday night, the Red Cross received a call to respond to a house fire on Sheridan Street in Fitchburg. Steven Oskirko, Owen Mangan responded with me to the fire scene where we saw that the entire third floor of an apartment building was burned out. The two floors below were completely flooded from the hoses of the Fitchburg Fire Department. Firefighters had brought the fire under control before it severely damaged any surrounding buildings, and placed all 20 residents, wrapped in blankets, inside a warming bus just away from the building.fitch-pic-1

Our Disaster Action Team (DAT) did its evaluation of the scene and we planned out how to best help the four families affected by the fire. We opened the Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) and brought water and snacks to the families, trying to provide some comfort to them inside the bus, out of the cold night where overnight temperatures hovered around 16 degrees.

The look on all their faces was plain shock. While everyone was thankful for making it safely out of the building, a few residents were visibly upset. It’s a look DAT volunteers see across the United States.

While I was speaking with a few residents, a young girl came over to me with a questioning look. She looked up and asked if I was going to help her ‘big family?’ I told her, ‘Yes, we were going to help,’ and I would see that she and her family would have a place to sleep tonight. She smiled and went on to tell me she smelled something weird before she heard the smoke alarms, and alerted her father who was sleeping in the next room. Her family lived on the third floor, the floor completely destroyed in the fire. As other caseworkers assisted her family, I went and found one of the small stuffed teddy bears we carry in the ERV. With a smile she gladly accepted the bear and told me thank you.

Luckily, the building’s smoke alarms sounded the alert and all the residents were able to make it out of the building safely with their pets. As it is in so many cases, they were only able to make it out with what they were wearing.

fitch-pic-2A resident said to me last night, ‘I never thought this would happen to me.’ So many fires everyday around Massachusetts and we still don’t believe it will impact us, we never think that the home affected will be ours.

I can’t say thanks enough to the Fitchburg Fire Department. They do a wonderful job taking care of those affected until the Red Cross arrives.

While recovery is difficult and personal items can be replaced, the building smoke alarms worked wonderfully. Hands down, those smoke alarms saved lives that night.

The Giving is Easy

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Black Friday is ended. Cyber Monday came and went, although online shopping isn’t going anywhere. And #Giving Tuesday hashtags are overwhelming our Facebook news feeds, email inboxes and snail mail.

It’s that time of year again, when organizations tap in to our even better natures and ask us to dig a little deeper into our personal gift funds. And while even the best of us can roll our eyes at the hundredth email we receive asking for a holiday donation, the truth is that organizations like the Red Cross ask because this time of year is when the giving happens. It’s fundraising High Season, folks. People really are more generous this time of year.

The holiday season can also bring anxiety to the generous at heart struggling to make ends meet, and certainly for those of our clients who have recently lost everything in a historic flood, a house fire or tornado.

We’d therefore like to offer some options for giving back that either don’t break the bank or don’t even need the bank.

No Cost Ways to Give

  1. Give Blood. The need never ends, no matter what time of year it is. And blood and platelets have a shelf life, meaning the need is constant. By giving blood and just an hour of your time, you can save up to three lives.
  2. Volunteer. The life’s blood of the American Red Cross is its volunteers. We do set the bar pretty high for our volunteer staff, but the rewards are immeasurable. Think about joining one of our fire response teams, helping local veterans, handing out groceries at our Boston or New Bedford food pantry or being an ambassador for one of our many initiatives. You could even wind up writing our blog! (To get started, click here).
  3. Shop Normally. You’re buying gifts anyway, so why not get them on Amazon? Sign on to AmazonSmile and designate the American Red Cross as your preferred charity, and then begin your virtual shopping trips at amazon.com. You’ll find the same selection and prices as on http://www.amazon.com, but when you check out, AmazonSmile will donate 0.5% of the purchase price of each eligible item to the Red Cross. Yay.

The Gifts that Keeps on Giving

For the person who has everything, why not buy a symbolic gift in his or her name? Starting on Giving Tuesday (November 29), eBay customers can buy Gifts That Give Back to help those in need – from warm blankets for families displaced by floods to a night’s stay in a shelter for wildfire evacuees – these gifts provide hope and comfort when all is lost. Customers will receive a digital certificate with their purchase to email or print as a gift for someone special, and eBay is waiving all fees to ensure that 100% of the purchase price will support the American Red Cross. Available through December 24th, these gifts are perfect for all of your last minute holiday shopping needs!

And While We Have You…

From #GivingTuesday through the month of December, when you donate to the Red Cross through the PayPal Giving Fund, PayPal will add 1 percent to every donation made. And, PayPal passes on 100 percent of every donation made to the Red Cross.

And finally, whether you’re in the market for a car for yourself or looking to make someone else’s holiday merry and bright with super extravagant gift, Mazda and its Dealers invite you to Drive for Good this season. When you lease or purchase a new Mazda vehicle during the Mazda Drive for Good Event November 21 – January 3, Mazda will offer you the chance to direct a $150 donation to the Red Cross among other charities. And, when you test-drive a Mazda vehicle November 21 through January 3, Mazda employees will pledge an hour of volunteer time to worthy causes, including the Red Cross.

No matter what your paycheck or your ability to spare free time, this year, as in every year, we invite you to #GiveWithMeaning. It’s easier than ever.

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.