Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Day in the Red Cross Jacket: A Ride-Along with the Metro New York Red Cross

Story and photos by Amanda Grzymala

On the blustery night of Thursday, Feb. 10, I scoured my Manhattan College campus for a friend with work boots, size 9, that I could borrow. When packing for college this year (I’m a junior), I did not figure work boots into the equation, but I guess I should have. The following day, I was getting the chance to go on a “ride along” with the Metro New York Red Cross. In order to accompany a Disaster Response team, I needed to wear sturdy boots that would not be afraid of dirt.

I had been working as an intern in the Marketing and PR department for two weeks when I was given this opportunity to see firsthand where the real difference is made, what we in Metro NY are fundraising for, and how we as an organization provide crucial services to New Yorkers displaced by disasters.

Although I woke up a bit earlier and a bit more energetic than most mornings, my commute to the office seemed to drag because of anticipation. When I bounded into the office, I was escorted to the building’s Disaster Response area and was fitted with all the essentials needed by a responder: a walkie-talkie, a Red Cross jacket and a bag containing a hard hat and paperwork. Not to mention video equipment. As the Marketing and Public Relations intern, my task was to document and record. All geared up, I was raring to go.

I was to work with two responders that day: Luke Carron and Nell Baird. Both were AmeriCorps volunteers with a few years experience serving the Red Cross here in New York. AmeriCorps volunteers devote their time to a community or national cause while receiving a stipend for living expenses. Luke and Nell welcomed me to their shift and chatted about the upcoming weekend. With light hearts and positive outlooks, both responders were able to keep an upbeat attitude while waiting for the next disaster response. They explained to me that they did not know when they were going to be called out, that it was a guessing game of events. I would just have to sit patiently and wait.

And wait.

Settling back into my usual cubicle in Marketing and PR, I began other work. The excitement began to subside, until a call came ringing in loud and clear around 10:30 a.m. Quickly grabbing my gear, I sped downstairs to meet Luke and Nell, and off we went in a Red Cross van.

 We’re called to a “vacate”

The first incident was one that surprised me, a “vacate” order in the Bronx. When you think of disaster response, you immediately think of fires and extreme nature conditions, not vacate orders. Buildings (or individual apartments) are ordered to be vacated when a city agency has determined that the residence is unfit or unsafe to inhabit. Although intended to ensure the safety and well-being of a building’s or apartment’s occupants, vacate orders often leave residents homeless, many times with little or no advance notice. The Red Cross was called to assist the now ex-tenants. As we entered the home, we learned that two people had been evicted from attic apartments and needed Red Cross help. They were taken surprise by the eviction and had nowhere to go.

That’s when I understood how vital Red Cross help is in these situations and how much good the Red Cross does for those affected. The responders offered the tenants a hotel room for the weekend and financial support for food and basic necessities. They encouraged them to visit the chapter for further support and guidance.

It was after helping to escort one of the clients to a hotel that I realized that this is a truly warm-the-heart kind of goodness that not many interns can say they have experienced.

We respond to a residential fire

Soon after leaving the hotel, around 1 pm, we were called to a fire in the Bronx. This was it. I had known that the Red Cross responds to fires, and had been fortunate enough to never experience one myself. We raced across the Bronx to a residential neighborhood where we saw a multitude of fire trucks pulling up to a blocked-off street. Climbing out of the van, we were ready to enter the madness that accompanies the stress of a fire.

The world seemed a little dimmer as we crossed the police tape and stood beside the firemen and police. They had done their job, putting out the fire and securing the area. Now the task of helping the residents was up to the Red Cross. As we looked up at the building, we could see windows smashed and fire-scorched brick. Displaced residents were huddled on the stoops of neighboring apartments, wondering what they were going to do next.

I could not imagine the worries that must stampede through a person’s mind after experiencing a fire that ruins every possession they own. When we were given the “all-clear,” the responders and I were able to enter the building. I watched as Luke and Nell conducted damage reports on the apartments. I was unable to tell what was damaged beyond repair, what was water damaged and things that were salvageable. Luckily, I was not the one to make those decisions. I did my job, which was to snap photo after photo of the scene.

Then came the questions. We were the link between the fire marshals and the residents, each of whom wanted to know when they would be able to enter the building and clean up the mess. As the day pressed on and they were still not allowed to enter the building, the concern in their eyes gave way to stress and confusion.

After about two hours, safety inspections were completed by the fire marshals and the building was deemed uninhabitable because water and electricity had to be switched off while repairs were being made. Everyone now needed safe shelter for the night—and possibly beyond.

We systematically and carefully walked residents to their apartments to collect essential belongings, then walked them back down to safety. It was difficult to watch the tenants’ reactions as they re-entered the building. Their apartment doors were damaged and their things were soaked or smelled of soot. A woman who knew the tenant from the apartment where the fire started wished to grab paperwork for him, but just by glimpsing the unit, she could tell nothing was salvageable.

As it grew dark and the cold grew treacherous, chilling everyone to the bone, the responders provided hotel accommodations for every person who had no other alternative, arranged a bus to the hotel, and food for the night. They also encouraged everyone to visit the chapter as soon as the next day to receive further assistance and support.

A feeling of gratitude

By this point, my shift and the shifts of the responders I was working with had ended hours earlier. I found this remarkable. The responders are volunteers and employees who give their time, effort and compassion to people they do not know, and may never see again. Luke and Nell took on this heavy work load and did so with a sense of calm and control. An entire building of people had to be taken care of, something that Red Cross responders see often.

This had been a long day. Riding back to the chapter, I let out a sigh of relief. I had an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for what I have been fortunate enough to have in my life, what I have been lucky enough not to lose. As we entered the garage, I was snapped back to reality, seeing yet another van with a team of responders heading out to an incident. This is a living, breathing organization of caring individuals that give their time and energy to others. In fact, each day, the chapter responds to an average of 7 disasters in Greater New York.

I am thankful to be part of such an organization, and as I headed home to fall into a deep sleep, I felt calm knowing that even though my day was over, the Red Cross was still going strong, providing hope to the city that never sleeps.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

“The Red Cross plays an essential role in emergencies.”

Jim Dowling works in the corporate offices of Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), an international medical technology company. Although his job and family life keep him rather busy, Jim still finds the time to volunteer for the American Red Cross in Greater New York.

Jim, an Orange County Red Cross Disaster Action Team member, is very active in Mass Care as a Shelter Supervisor and as a Disaster Assessment Lead in the Lower Hudson Valley. In March 2010, for 24 hours he helped run a community shelter in Monroe, NY during a storm. He also responded to two fires last year. “We were there to comfort people and offer temporary shelter, food and clothing,” said Jim.

Due to his volunteer efforts for the Red Cross, Jim was recognized by his employer, BD, and received its 2010 Henry P. Becton Volunteer Impact Award. Recipients of this award must demonstrate a long-term commitment to giving their time and talents to helping members of their community. As part of the honor, BD will make a financial donation to the Red Cross in Jim’s name.

“From January through September 2010,” said Jim “volunteers in the Greater New York chapter responded to almost 1,800 fires, floods, building collapses and other emergencies, assisting nearly 9,670 people with emergency housing, food and clothing. The Red Cross plays an essential role in emergencies such as these to help people recover from disasters.”
Jim Dowling, Lower Hudson Valley

“I didn’t know that the Red Cross does so much.”

D’André Sibblies (second from left) may never eat chicken nuggets again. D’André, who is 14,and his brother Bryan, 16, (far left), were home alone in Brooklyn early one Tuesday evening. Their mother, Taunya, was returning from her job as a bank teller; their dad, Albert, a freelance computer tech, and older brother Ryan, were out. D’André was hungry and decided to cook up some chicken nuggets.

He filled a frying pan with cooking oil and lit a fire beneath it. Then, Instead of waiting by the stove while the oil heated, D’André used the bathroom, then sat down to watch TV—in a room one floor below the kitchen. Ten minutes later, Rocky, the family’s Australian shepherd, began to bark. D’André thought Rocky had heard someone at the front door—until he smelled smoke, remembered the frying pan and raced upstairs, where foot-high flames were rising from the frying pan.

Panicked, D’André did the exact wrong thing—he threw water on an oil fire. Whoosh! The fire leapt up to the ceiling. D’André yelled for Bryan and they beat a path down the stairs and out the front door.

The Red Cross arrived as firefighters contained the blaze. Sadly, the home was destroyed. Greater New York chapter relief workers provided the Sibblies with funds for replacement food and clothing, as well as emergency housing at a local hotel for two nights. Although the family had friends they might have stayed with, Taunya said they were happy to accept the housing. “You don’t want to impose your tragedy on your friends,” she said. Until their home can be repaired, the Sibblies are staying in an apartment in their housing complex.

“I didn’t know that the Red Cross does so much,” said Albert. “I can’t say enough about how much they helped us. We are very grateful.” D’André, for his part, at least in the near term, has sworn off chicken nuggets.

Brian, D’André, Ryan and Albert Sibblies and Tauyna Bush, Brooklyn, NY

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

“The help we’ve received, we can’t forget it.”

One morning, Farren Allen Jr. was asleep in the basement apartment in Brooklyn where he lived with his father, when he woke to knocking. Not expecting anyone, he went back to sleep then heard a man shout, “Break down the door!” Within minutes Farren Jr. was confronted by representatives of the city. They told him that the apartment, where he and his dad had lived for seven months had been rented to them illegally and they had to vacate the premises—immediately.

Unsure of what to do and with his father not home, Farren Jr. told the agent he had no place to go. The agent said the Red Cross was already on the way. “I wasn’t sure about the service the Red Cross provides,” said Farren Jr., “but he explained that the Red Cross would help.”

The father and son were planning to move when their lease ended in June, but since Farren Sr., who worked in security, had broken his foot a few months earlier, he was temporarily unemployed. “Then this happened and I felt lost,” he said.

The Red Cross provided emergency funds and temporary shelter for the Allens in a clean, safe hotel. They also received ongoing guidance from Red Cross caseworkers who assisted them in finding long-term housing. “I’ve seen the Red Cross before but I never knew they were so good,” said Farren Sr.

Farren Jr. hopes to go back to school as a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College once they are resettled. Both father and son are so appreciative of the help they received from the Red Cross that they plan to become volunteers. “We’re going to give back, you look for our names,” said Farren Sr. “Because the help we’ve received, we can’t forget it.”

Farren Allen Sr and Farren Allen Jr, Brooklyn, NY