Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“They genuinely want to help people.”

Tom Sanchez and his girlfriend had just finished dinner in their Astoria, Queens, apartment and were sitting down to watch TV when they smelled smoke. Upon finding it pouring out of their kitchen cabinets and sink, Tom’s girlfriend grabbed their pet cat and Chihuahua and ran down six flights of stairs to the street. Tom, seeing people standing in front of the apartment immediately below theirs and hearing that someone was still inside, decided to go in and help.

Inside, parts of the apartment were in flames, and he was forced to crouch lower and lower beneath the smoke as he waded through a foot of hoarded materials to cross the room. He found the occupant of the apartment, a woman who was reluctant to leave. Tom had trouble communicating with her because she spoke only Spanish; he finally was able to pull her outside to safety.

Once the fire was out, Tom and his girlfriend returned to their apartment to find most of their kitchen destroyed, with a hole knocked through the ceiling and all the appliances ripped from the walls. Although the apartment was not habitable, they were fortunate in that most of their personal possessions, which were in other rooms, were spared.

The Red Cross arrived and offered assistance. Tom and his girlfriend initially declined, thinking they had other places to stay. Soon after the Red Cross relief workers left, however, they decided they didn’t wish to inconvenience family, friends or neighbors, and called the number on the flyer the Red Cross had given them. They were immediately provided with short-term housing at a local hotel. The next day, a caseworker at Red Cross headquarters advised them on how to work with a city agency to arrange longer-term temporary housing.

Tom said he felt lucky to have survived the fire since there were no smoke detectors in the building. He believes if it had started after they’d gone to sleep, they might not have awoken in time to escape.

Before the fire, Tom thought Red Cross provided assistance only to people affected by international disasters. He was surprised that Red Cross responders arrived at his building within minutes and that they were so supportive. “They genuinely want to help people," Tom said. "They weren’t trying to put a stamp on a piece of paper and move on to the next client. That was so unexpected and refreshing.”

Tom Sanchez, Queens, NY

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A New Yorker in Joplin

Immediately after a deadly tornado hit the city of Joplin, Missouri on May 22, destroying thousands of homes, killing more than 150 people, and throwing thousands of lives into disarray, the Red Cross in Missouri rushed to help. It housed, fed and provided comfort and caring to hundreds of residents, gave out tarps, gloves, rakes and dust masks, and distributed comfort kits containing essentials such as shampoo and toothpaste. Additionally, Red Cross vehicles drove through Joplin neighborhoods, providing residents with water, snacks and much needed emotional support.

The Greater New York region also sprang into action, deploying 12 workers to assist in the Joplin relief operation. James Bethea, a Greater NY Disaster Mental Health volunteer, was one of those dispatched to the disaster area. As his deployment was ending, the New York native checked in from Joplin to talk about his time there.

Greater NY volunteer James Bethea and friends
 What is your role in Joplin?

I got here four days after the tornado struck. I was assigned to a shelter where about 400 people—children and families—were staying. As far as the mental health work I’m doing, I’ve been talking to about 20 people a day. I’m part of an integrated care team that reaches out to family members who lost loved ones in the tornado. That’s obviously quite intense.

Was the situation on the ground what you excepted?

In our training, we’re taught to deal with trauma and crisis, but nothing really prepares you for these types of events. When I first arrived, I was overwhelmed by the destruction I saw and by hearing the gut-wrenching stories from the victims. It took me a while to really compose myself.

How does this role compare to your volunteer work in the New York area?

It’s different in the sense of scale. The tornado was about a mile wide and six miles long. The hospital, Home Depot and Wal-Mart were all destroyed. This was a city-wide disaster, as opposed to the smaller-scale traumatic events I‘ve responded to in New York.

What is the general mood?

The general feeling is shock, that this was a surreal experience. A lot of people are angry because they lost everything. For some people, the only thing they could salvage before the storm hit was a bag of clothes or some small valuables. But I am also seeing incredible resolve among the people—especially people who are out in the community. Neighbors are helping neighbors and people are moving forward. When people realize I am from New York, they’re really thankful, appreciative and humble that people have come from Red Cross chapters all over the country to help. But I feel like this community has helped me just as much. To see people bond together like that, support and comfort each other like that, it’s inspiring. I’m deeply humbled to be a part of it. It’s been an amazing experience.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Goes Around: A Red Cross Client Returns Compassion Eight Years Later

Long-time Red Cross volunteer Damaris Rundle
Every day, dedicated Metro NY Red Cross volunteers bring help, hope and healing to residents affected by fires, floods, building collapses and other emergencies and disasters. Many volunteers say helping others makes them feel that they’re doing their small part to change the world for the better.

Damaris Rundle, the Metro NY Assistant Director of Response for Orange and Sullivan counties, is one such volunteer. “I like the feeling I get at the end of the day,” she says, “knowing that I made a difference.” Often, the feeling of warmth and caring responders convey to Red Cross clients is reciprocated.

Earlier this year, Damaris found herself in the Emergency Room of her local hospital. As she waited to be seen by a doctor, a nurse’s aide walked back and forth in front of her bed several times, staring at Damaris, who began to feel as if she were “on display.” Several hours later, now waiting to be transferred to another facility, Damaris began to feel cold and requested a blanket. The aide hurried over and wrapped a warm blanket around her shoulders, “much like one would do to a child,” said Damaris.

The aide then gave a surprised Damaris a big hug and said, “Years ago you stood by me. You wrapped a blanket around me as I watched my house burn. I’ve often thought about you and how you were there for me. Now it’s my turn to give back to you and to tell you how much that meant to me.”

As sick as Damaris felt, she experienced the warmth this women had to share as they stood together, crying. “I again was reminded of why I do what I do,” said Damaris. A month later, when Damaris was back on her feet, she looked up the fire the woman had spoken of and was amazed to discover that it had occurred eight years earlier, in 2003. Damaris said, “It makes it so worthwhile when the good we do is remembered like this.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sixth Grader Makes Bracelets for Japan

Jack Breiman (left) and his family
By Aabye-Gayle Favilla

For over a year, Jack Breiman had been making bracelets out of bottle tops and elastic, selling them, and donating part of the proceeds to various charities. He got the idea from a similar bracelet his cousin showed him. Jack was inspired to take the bracelet apart to figure out how it was made, and then came up with his own unique design. He’s been making bottle top bracelets ever since.

When Jack’s sixth grade class started learning about the devastation in Japan following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, he was touched. Hearing how many people were risking their lives to help, Jack felt compelled to contribute. He wanted to raise money for Japan.

Jack decided to start selling his bottle top bracelets on behalf of outreach efforts in Japan. He sold the bracelets at a coffee shop in his town of Mahopac, New York, and at a local dentist’s office. With the bracelets appealing to both boys and girls equally, he was able to sell more than 150, after which he made a $350 a donation to the Red Cross.

In recognition of Jack’s contribution, the Metro NY Red Cross presented him with a certificate of appreciation.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Donning the Red Jacket Once More: A Second Ride-Along Story

By Amanda Grzymala

Back in February, I went on my first ride-along, accompanying Metro NY Red Cross responders to the scene of a disaster. Now, during my last week working as an intern in the Marketing & PR department, I was going out on a response for a second time.

Once again, I borrowed a friend’s work boots (so that I could safely walk through a fire scene), and prepared myself to experience another long, yet fulfilling day. Remembering my first ride-along, I knew that this second trip would be full of unexpected twists.

At the chapter’s disaster response area I met Mauricio Serrato, Senior Supervisor, Response, who gave me an unexpected, behind-the-scenes tour of the workings of the disaster relief process, something I’d not been able to see in February.

First, we visited the Emergency Communications Center (ECC), where I saw the scanners the ECC team monitors to learn about fires throughout Metro New York in order to quickly respond. And I met the ECC staff members—the people at the other end of our walkie-talkies who organize housing for clients displaced by disaster and who direct responders during their shifts.

I then met Stephen Johnson, the responder I’d be shadowing that day, and a Red Cross employee with more than four years of experience. We gathered our equipment—walkie-talkie, jacket, hard hat, etc.—and headed out in an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) that Stephen had already packed with supplies.

The fire we’d responded to in February was residential; this one was at a commercial building, a Laundromat. I wondered why we would respond to such a fire if there would be no residents who needed our help. Stephen explained that first responders had been battling this 4-alarm blaze nearly the entire day. They need plenty of hydration and nourishment and had run out of both. Since it’s the responsibility of the Red Cross to provide basic humanitarian assistance to first responders, as well as to New Yorkers affected by disasters, we would be providing the firefighters with beverages and snacks.

As we approached Burnside Avenue in the Bronx, it was obvious that this fire was difficult to control. We parked on a nearby street, avoiding fire trucks and crowds of people. As we got out of the ERV, I noticed the heavy stream of water flowing down the street. Spotting the fire building, we saw smoke billowing from the roof. The fire was still burning and spreading to adjacent establishments.

Firefighters were out in full force, waiting for their chance to battle the blaze. We surveyed the area and then hurried back to the ERV and unloaded our supplies—water, cases of Gatorade, and boxes of cookies and snacks. Exhausted firefighters were grateful for the opportunity to rehydrate and grab a snack. After a round of thanks, we headed back to the ERV, a job well done.

The Metro NY Red Cross is there to assist those affected by fires. The first responders fighting that fire may not be the first ones to cross your mind, but as they risk their lives for us, the least we can do is provide simple supplies that give them the most basic forms of comfort and support.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Looking for Coffee, Finding Hope

Sam Kille, our region’s Senior Director of Marketing and Public Relations, discusses his deployment to New England as part of the American Red Cross' Advanced Public Affairs Team, in response to a series of tornadoes that hit several Massachusetts’ communities on the evening of June 1.

Twenty-four hours without sleep tends to make me a bit cranky and feeling less than talkative, especially when a cup of coffee is nowhere in sight. Yet normal goes out the window when standing in the middle of a neighborhood literally crushed by the fist of Mother Nature.

Called “Six Corners” by its residents, this neighborhood’s damage was the backdrop of many reporters’ coverage of the tornadoes that hit not only Springfield, but several Massachusetts’ communities on the evening of June 1. I had arrived there during the middle of the night, with my fellow Long Islander Craig Cooper, to work with the media to let the public know how the American Red Cross was helping the victims.

While waiting for opportunities to go on camera, we received word of a press conference with the governor, so Craig headed downtown and left me behind to handle interviews there. As you might expect, Craig was held up for a while and I was pretty much stranded after making my rounds. So, I did the only thing I could do—listened to the survivors.

As I spoke with residents, it became very clear that they weren’t used to weather events like this in New England—blizzards yes, but not tornadoes. This of course reinforced my “Red Cross brainwashing” that preparedness, far too often, is an “I’ll do it tomorrow” concept—and we don’t always get tomorrows.

One young mother described how she watched the twister come across an open field, barreling toward her townhome-style apartment complex. She grabbed her son and rushed into a hallway, hoping and praying that they would live. Amazingly, other than her windows, her apartment received no other damage. Still, due to the dangers in the neighborhood, she would be seeking shelter from the Red Cross. So, I let her know where our shelter was.

Neighbors, like Hector, weren’t as fortunate. His family’s home, like most of the complex, was completely destroyed. Yet his spirit resonated with me and I must’ve spent a good 20 minutes listening to his life story.

He told me of a motorcycle accident a decade ago that left him in a coma for two weeks—during which, he missed the birth of a child. It was a second chance at a life that had been filled with bad choices and legal woes. From that, he has changed his life, becoming a role model for those who might otherwise turn to gangs or drugs.

And as he spoke of the need for the community to come together and be “reborn” through this disaster, I could only hope that he succeeds and my own determination to help was strengthened.

I heard a lot of great stories of hope and determination that morning. One woman asked me how she could organize a fund drive, more worried about her neighbors than herself. Some tales were truly astonishing like the gentleman who took me to a building and said, “See that? It’s my second floor.” Then he pointed to another building and said, “It was over there.” It was as if Mother Nature had played a game of “musical rooftops” there.

I’m still shaking my head at the fact that there were not more fatalities in Massachusetts. Over a 48-hour period, I would visit many communities including West Springfield, Westfield and Monson. Each had more than its fair share of devastation. Homes, businesses, and places of worship destroyed—many places look more like a warzone. Hundreds have been staying in Red Cross shelters. Many are being served food via Red Cross vehicles driving into affected areas.

And while I was eventually able to get that much cherished cup of coffee, what really drove me—like so many Red Cross workers on the ground—was the knowledge that even if these survivors had somewhere to stay other than our shelters; or had the means to purchase a hot meal on their own; sometimes, hope lies in knowing that someone is there to listen to you—and the American Red Cross does just that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Photos: Fire at 1711 Popham Avenue in the Bronx

Photos: Lisa Weatherbee

On the morning of May 4, 2011, a fire struck a house in the Bronx. The Red Cross was dispatched to the scene to provide help and hope to residents who were affected.

Click here to read full captions of each photo.

Video: Tornadoes Devastate Springfield, MA - YOU Can Help!

Sam Kille, an American Red Cross spokesman, tells how you can help victims of disasters like the tornadoes that destroyed homes and businesses in places like Springfield, MA. June 2, 2011.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Video: Red Cross SAF and New Yorkers Thank Military Service Members

This Memorial Day weekend, during the Fleetweek festivities by the Intrepid, the Services to the Armed Forces (SAF) of the Metro NY Red Cross invited to New Yorkers to show their appreciation for those who serve in the military.

Learn more about SAF.