Thursday, March 29, 2012

Riding with a Responder by Amanda Grzymala

by Amanda  Grzymala

Red Cross Responder Katrina Hill
As a returning Communications Intern for the Red Cross Greater New York Region, I have had two opportunities to ride along to the scene of a fire or vacate with Red Cross disaster responders. Each response gave me a glimpse of how essential our response team is to local disasters. When I was asked to ride along again on March 23, I jumped at the chance.

Katrina Hill, the responder I was going to accompany that day, and I were immediately called to a fire. I started to remember the images of the past fires I’d responded to: of fire fighters battling blazes, punched-out windows and residents in need of Red Cross help. No two fires are ever alike, but having been to a couple, I thought I might know the general chain of events.

Katrina and I headed out to the southern part of Brooklyn in a Red Cross van. During the ride, we discussed the Red Cross disaster response. Katrina is a response team staff member, one of five in total, and has worked at the Red Cross for over a year. Prior to that, she spent almost two years as one of over 300 committed New York volunteer responders.

Katrina now trains new disaster responders, a task she enjoys. To become a volunteer, Katrina says, is an extremely organized and comprehensive process. Though a series of modules and trainings, new responders learn everything necessary to compassionately and efficiently help their fellow New Yorkers.

As I was doing that day, trainees base the bulk of their learning on hands-on experience responding to everyday disasters with seasoned relief workers. Volunteers are able to choose the amount of time they dedicate to the Red Cross, ranging from a couple of days month to a few days a week. As Katrina discussed the process, I could imagine how rewarding it would be to become a responder, and have the chance to help people when they need it most.

We reached the street of the fire and the scene was different from my past experiences. The blaze was beaten, and the damage appeared minor. As we approached the residents of the home, they seemed glad to see us, but politely declined our help, as they would be able to stay with family a few blocks away. The situation was a bit anti-climatic, but in a good way. The fire did not damage the two-story home too badly, and thankfully, no one had been home when the fire started.

As Katrina and I headed back to the Red Cross van, she explained that even though these residents declined assistance, most do not. There is never certainty what the situation will be when dealing with a fire. It is the responders’ job to be there, even if just to let residents know the Red Cross is available to help.

I would like to thank all the responders, volunteer and staff, that dedicate their time and effort to the Red Cross. Responding to everyday emergencies makes the Red Cross what it is today – humanitarian support that people can rely upon to always be there.

For more information about volunteering at Red Cross Greater New York Region, please click here.

Red Cross Month Volunteer Leader Spotlight: Suzanne Solomon

Suzanne Solomon grew up in Miami, Florida, but has been a New Yorker since 1987 when she moved here for her career. By day, she works in legal publishing; by night she writes crime fiction.

After 9/11, Suzanne began volunteering with the Bar Association. She took sworn statements for the New York City Law Department’s Expedited Death Certificate Program—helping the families of those presumed dead due to the World Trade Center attacks. Suzanne was paired with a Red Cross mental health worker, and still cherishes the chapter pin she received from her partner.

In 2005, after seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, Suzanne formally joined her local Red Cross chapter in New York City. She began as a disaster reserve volunteer, and then joined the “Night Blue” Progressive On Call (PRO) team that sets up Red Cross reception centers and shelters when needed.

A family history of Red Cross service

Suzanne isn’t the first in her family to donate her services to the Red Cross. Her great-grandmother volunteered with the Red Cross during World War II at the U.S. Army Air Corps training headquarters in Miami Beach.

This connection to the past is one Suzanne takes seriously. “I feel that one of the important values families can pass down is a legacy of community service,” she said.

Two extraordinary volunteer experiences

Suzanne has had many memorable experiences as a Red Cross volunteer, but two particularly stand out in her mind. As a member of the Night Blue PRO team, Suzanne took part in the relief effort for the emergency landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009. She worked at the Family Assistance Center, providing clothing, comfort kits and emotional support to the passengers.

“What struck me the most,” said Suzanne, “was that the passengers I spoke to—who’d very nearly lost their lives—took nothing for granted. They were unfailingly gracious and grateful for the help of the Red Cross.”

Volunteering for Hurricane Irene

More recently, Suzanne worked as a logistics volunteer for the Disaster Relief Operation Headquarters in the days before and after Hurricane Irene. She spent a lot of time on the road driving volunteers between the chapters in New York City and Long Island. She even slept over at regional headquarters in Manhattan.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” said Suzanne, “to shelter at chapter headquarters during the storm with Red Cross volunteers who had travelled to New York from across the country to help.”

It is the people she’s met (those she’s worked with and those she’s helped) that keep Suzanne motivated to serve. Suzanne says volunteering for the Red Cross has been an incredible learning experience, and she’s grateful to everyone at the Red Cross who has helped her grow as a volunteer.

“Flexibility, patience, a sense of humor and the ability to make good hot chocolate go a long way,” she said.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Red Cross Month Volunteer Leader Spotlight: Ken Creary

Since Ken Creary began volunteering for the Westchester Red Cross four years ago, he’s undertaken so many volunteer roles that it’s easy to lose count.

As a Disaster Response Team (DAT) leader and coordinator, Creary responds with his team to fires, floods or other natural or human-caused disasters to provide food, shelter, first aid and mental health support for those affected. He also manages his team’s schedule, finding the right balance between having a sufficient number volunteers on-call for each shift while making sure no one is over-committed.

As a member of the newly formed Volunteer Management-On-Call team, which complements the Red Cross staff in decision-making responsibilities, Creary serves as a resource for all Greater New York region Red Cross DAT coordinators, giving guidance on what services should be provided after an incident.

Creary also represents the Red Cross as part of the Westchester Emergency Operations Center (EOC). When a major disaster occurs in Westchester County, the EOC is activated and pulls representatives from the county agencies and their partners into one location to efficiently coordinate resources.

If all this weren’t enough, Creary is also a member of the Aviation Disaster Task Force that provides mental health support for those affected by an aviation disaster.

Given all these volunteer responsibilities, it should come as no surprise that Creary was the recipient of the 2011 Westchester Red Cross Disaster Planning and Leadership Award.

“Ken is an amazing volunteer and a major player in just about every area of disaster,” said Maritza Meadows, Metro New York North assistant director of emergency services. “I’m not sure what we would do without him.”

For his part, Creary is unwavering in his praise of the Red Cross. “The Red Cross is unparalleled in its ability to respond to disasters and has extremely dedicated, highly motivated volunteers,” he said.

“In one of the Red Cross training videos a volunteer stated something along the lines of ‘This is the best job you've never been paid to do.’ It is so true.”

Creary added, “We need to encourage more people to volunteer. It is often when things are at their worst that we see people at their best.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Red Cross Month Volunteer Leader Spotlight: Tom Hlenski

This has been a particularly active year for Tom Hlenski, who has been a Disaster Mental Health (DMH) volunteer with the Long Island Red Cross since 2005.

During Hurricane Irene, Tom, who holds a doctorate in social work and maintains a private practice in Nassau and Suffolk counties, worked at the then-Red Cross Suffolk headquarters in response operations. He offered emotional support to those affected by the hurricane, including those requiring shelter, before, during and after the storm.

Tom also had the recent opportunity to get involved with the New York City Red Cross through an ongoing liaison with that chapter’s disaster mental health volunteers. As part of this liaison, Tom and his wife, Donna Cain-Hlenski, a licensed clinical social worker who also volunteers in DMH, were invited to be part of the 2011 ING NYC Marathon Red Cross medical team. DMH volunteers were prepared to assist marathon participants and others experiencing psychological stress as a result of running or working the marathon, as well as families of the runners who required care.

Tom said he had two strong reactions to having worked the Marathon. “First,” he said, “I continue to be amazed with the scope of the Red Cross and its dedicated volunteers who provided a host of services to the runners. Second—what an exciting event to be a part of!”

Tom joined the Red Cross as a spontaneous volunteer in 1995 to help the families of the victims of the crash of TWA Flight 800. Tom assisted the families and first responders, working alongside Red Cross Disaster Mental Health experts. He was impressed by the training and professionalism of the Red Cross workers. He knew someday he would want to dedicate more of his time to volunteer work, and kept the Red Cross in mind after that initial experience.

Around the time Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Tom, inspired by Donna, who had long been involved in volunteer organizations, which included volunteering and serving on the board of Make-a-Wish Foundation, decided he wanted a more active role as a Red Cross volunteer.

Tom’s first Red Cross deployment was to Florida, where he provided emotional support to families affected by Hurricane Wilma, as well as to first responders and other Red Cross volunteers.

Today, Tom and Donna’s grandchildren, 12-year-old Emily Ray, 8-year-old Lainey Grace, and 6-year-old Cain Thomas, continue to motivate them to serve. Tom has even spoken at the children’s school about the Red Cross and how it feels to help others. He hopes that someday they too will want to volunteer.

Tom proudly points out that 2012 is the 20th anniversary of the Red Cross’s Disaster Mental Health group and that DMH is a huge part of today’s relief efforts. It is now common to see mental health workers at disaster sites and in Red Cross reception centers and shelters across the Greater New York region, supporting volunteers, employees and Red Cross clients.

Diane Ryan, regional director of mental health and client services for Greater New York, met Tom three years ago, when they both responded to the tragic aviation incident in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Over the course of the 10 days we worked together,” said Ryan, “Tom impressed me with his manner of providing support to those in great emotional pain, his flexibility to do whatever was needed, and his support to all of the Red Cross and other agency workers.”

Even as Tom maintains his practice as a private health practitioner, he is dedicated to putting in the necessary hours it takes to keep the DMH group in top shape.

For instance, Tom is always looking to recruit volunteers. He explains that a great deal of work goes on behind the scenes before a disaster strikes, including regularly scheduled leadership meetings, conferences and calls. Additionally, DMH leaders are constantly working to develop and improve “Best Practice Strategies and Procedures.”

Tom believes that what you get back from volunteering far outweighs any disruption to your “regularly scheduled” life.

He said, “The feeling you get going out after a disaster strikes by being part of the mending process and connecting with the people who need you right then and there, is so powerful and rewarding.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Red Cross Month Volunteer Leader Spotlight: Ross Ogden

Few people can claim to have volunteered with the Red Cross for more than 50 years. Ross Ogden is one of them.

Ogden began volunteering with the Red Cross Greenwich, Conn. chapter’s youth department way back in 1960; he was in high school at the time. His commitment continued at nearby chapters while he was getting his BA at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and his MBA at the University of Virginia.

Since he’s begun volunteering, Ogden has done a variety of jobs. He has worked with the Greenwich chapter as a blood volunteer, an active Disaster Action Team (DAT) member. He has participated in more than 20 Disaster Services Human Resources assignments (i.e., traveling to volunteer at Red Cross disaster relief operations across the United States), and been a member of Greenwich’s Emergency Blood Coverage team. He has served on the Board of Directors for multiple terms since 1974, and is currently on the Board of Advisors.

It is this variety of opportunities for service that has helped to keep Ogden engaged with the Red Cross. “It is such a broad humanitarian effort,” Ogden said, “that I always feel like there is something new to do at the Red Cross to help people, and that makes it interesting.”

Ogden has also held many positions within the National organization, including Volunteer Chairman of the American Red Cross Northeast Region and National Chairman of Chapter Services. Today, he serves as National Volunteer Chair of Disaster Services for the entire United States. He is also on the Board of Directors for Red Cross Blood Services in the Connecticut Region.

Gaining by giving

And just as Ogden has given of his time and talents to the Red Cross, the Red Cross has provided him with opportunities he may not have otherwise had.

“I‘ve always felt that the Red Cross has given me far more than I’ve ever been able to give to it,” said Ogden. “There is so much to gain from volunteering—so much satisfaction from helping other people, so much to learn, so many new friends to make, so many different things to do and experience.”

One such opportunity he is particularly grateful for is when the Red Cross paid for him to attend a three-week program run by the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Gratitude for recognition awards

Due to the quality and longevity of his service, Ogden has been recognized on numerous occasions. Among others, he has received both the Clara Barton Award and the Harriman Award for Distinguished Volunteer Service—the highest honor bestowed upon a Red Cross volunteer at the national level. But despite the accolades, he has remained a humble server.

“The Harriman Award was unexpected,” Ogden said. “I can remember my early days at the Red Cross, being at the convention, seeing someone become the recipient of the Harriman Award, and thinking, “Wow! That person is just amazing.” It’s not anything I ever expected to receive, and I was enormously surprised and deeply grateful for that recognition.”

What Ogden values most—even above the awards—are the deep and diverse friendships he’s made while serving the Red Cross. When he received the Harriman Award in 2010—an honor that coincided with his 50th year of service—his words brought the crowd to its feet, “It’s not the award for which I am most grateful” he said. “Instead it’s the volunteer experience the Red Cross has given me that I truly appreciate.”

Wide-ranging volunteer experiences

And his experiences have been greatly varied. He has sat with a cancer patient receiving a life-saving blood transfusion. He has administered CPR to a heart attack victim. He has spent the night in a hospital trying to console a sailor whose wife had committed suicide. And countless times he has helped bring food, shelter, comfort and hope to people who have lost everything due to a natural or man-made disaster.

There just isn’t a job Ogden won’t do, and he enjoys all of them—especially when he gets to come face to face with those he is helping and see firsthand the impact of his service.

Even after more than 50 years of working as a volunteer, Ogden remains committed to the future of the Red Cross. He wants to see the organization continue to increase service delivery, empower communities and succeed in encouraging more people to volunteer in new and innovative ways. He is also committed to mentoring young volunteers.

“The most important thing I can do now,” said Ogden, “is to try and instill in others—particularly in young people—the thrill, excitement, and lifetime of reward that they can get out of volunteering for the Red Cross. In working with the Red Cross as a volunteer you really gain by giving.”

Monday, March 5, 2012

You Never Know

By Laura S.

Though I am new to the Red Cross as a volunteer, I have had a relationship with the organization since childhood.

I grew up in Florida, as part of a family that was heavily involved in scouting. My parents were scout leaders and my brother and I were scouts in Brownies and Cub Scouts until we were teenagers. Both my parents were also Red Cross volunteers who taught first aid and CPR classes in our communities.

As soon as I was old enough, at age sixteen, I completed Red Cross lifeguard training and started lifeguarding at the Girl Scout camp I attended as a child.

Later, I became a water safety instructor and was also able to teach swimming lessons, water safety and rescue breathing. I continued lifeguarding through high school and college and always kept my certification up to date.

My brother became a trained EMT/firefighter. It was engrained in us, from both from scouting and our Red Cross training, to always be aware, prepared and safe.

After college I moved to New York and got a job as a public school teacher. Life was busy and hectic, and I was under pressure to get my required master’s degree in order to keep my job. All my Red Cross certifications lapsed and getting re-certified wasn’t a priority.

Ten years later, shortly before I had my first child, I brushed up on my first aid and CPR knowledge through the Internet. I knew I should take a refresher course, but I was confident that I would know what to do if I ever needed to use it.

When my daughter was an infant I spent many hours standing over her watching her breathe, as many a new and anxious mother will understand. The tiny creature in the crib was so helpless, and yet so unimaginably everything to me.

Sleep became a constant battle in my post-partum life. For me to sleep, she needed to sleep—but only long enough so that I wouldn’t run frantically into her room to make sure she was still breathing. Of course she was always breathing, but hormones and fatigue didn’t allow me to see that my fear was irrational.

By the time my son was born three years later, I felt like an old pro at being a mom. I didn’t suffer the same post-partum anxiety with my newborn this time, and it was a relief to feel like I had things under control, especially since I also had a toddler with her own set of needs. I was actually getting some sleep too, because I didn’t have that urge to check to make sure the baby was breathing all night long.

When my son was two weeks old, I left him with our regular babysitter so that I could take a friend to lunch as thank you for taking care of my daughter when I was in the hospital having my son.

The fact that I left him at all, even for just a couple of hours, was testament to how comfortable I felt this time around, since I never left my daughter with anyone until she was over a year old.

He was very fussy that day, but as I told myself, “It’s okay. Babies cry.”

All afternoon and evening he fussed and cried and barely slept. I was certain this was the beginning of what it’s like to have a “colicky” baby. He was eating normally, all of his needs were being met and he was just about the right age for the always-dreaded colic to kick in.

After hours of rocking, bouncing, soothing and singing, he finally fell asleep in my arms. I was exhausted, but afraid to transfer him into his bassinet for fear that I would wake him, so I carefully sat on the couch and held him on my shoulder. My husband and I turned on the television and planned to relax and watch our favorite sitcom.

About ten minutes in however, I had what I can only describe as a “mother’s instinct” moment and I somehow just knew that something was wrong. My son, who had been sleeping soundly on my shoulder, was sleeping a little too soundly. I quickly flipped him into a cradled position and found him purple, limp and not breathing.

I immediately shouted at my husband to call 911, dropped to my knees and laid my lifeless son on the floor.

The next thing I knew, my baby was screaming. His face was flooding with color and he was spitting mad.

Apparently, I had just performed CPR on my newborn son. I don’t remember doing it. I don’t know how I had the wherewithal to do it. I don’t even remember what I did exactly. It came to me as if in a dream, and it came as naturally as if I did it every day.

The cause of my son’s ALTE (acute life-threatening event) turned out to have been a blood-infection. His tiny body became septic and just shut down. He spent the next two weeks in the hospital on intravenous antibiotics to clear the infection, but there was no permanent damage to his brain since he was resuscitated immediately.

It is still almost unbearable for me to think about what would have happened that night if I had laid my son down right after he fell asleep, or if the ALTE had happened when he was with the sitter. We were incredibly lucky. But luck aside; when it all comes down to it, it wasn’t luck that saved my son’s life. It was training.

He is a joyful, healthy 8-year-old today because I learned CPR from the Red Cross when I was a teenager. And you can bet that my children will be trained as soon as they are old enough—because you never know when you might need it.