Thursday, May 31, 2012

Reflections on Yesterday’s September 11 Tribute

By Josh Lockwood, CEO of the American Red Cross Greater NY Region

Luis Avila, Greater NY Chief Response Officer (in the red tie) greets attendees

Yesterday evening, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum marked the 10th anniversary of the official end of the recovery operation with a tribute on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in lower Manhattan.

During the nearly three-hour event, thousands of volunteers and first responders who had worked at Ground Zero, along with their guests, made their way past a receiving line of first responders, clergy and others, as well as former and current officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former NY Gov. George Pataki.

I went to the event with Luis Avila, our Senior Response Officer. We watched families of 9/11 victims go through the receiving line and thank Luis and other first responders. On the ride down Luis shared with me his harrowing experience on 9/11 as he and other Red Crossers sought to respond to the worst disaster in our City’s history and then ran for their lives as the towers fell.

We can all understand the emotional resonance of that experience, not just for Luis but for other staff members and volunteers here—folks like Charlie Wells, who was with the New York City fire department at the time.

At various points in the evening I’d see someone approach me wearing a Red Cross shirt or a Red Cross lanyard—volunteers, and current and former staff members, some of whom came from as far away as Albany.

What was clear was how incredibly meaningful the event was for all of them, and for all of us in attendance. It was deeply gratifying to meet people for the first time both in and outside the Red Cross, see the Red Cross logo and have people tell me again and again how important our role was in the city and continues to be; how thankful they were—and are—for the Red Cross.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Help Can't Wait: Peter Rapaport

Peter Rapaport chairs the Board of Trustees of the Greater New York Red Cross Region

Peter and Elisa Rapaport
Red Cross (RC): Tell us why the Red Cross has launched the "Help Can't Wait" fundraising campaign. Peter Rapaport (PR): Disasters can happen at any time and any place. The recent brushfires on eastern Long Island remind us of that. We've seen several tornadoes in the Midwest and hurricane season is nearly here. So the American Red Cross is asking the public to help us prepare now.

Whenever there's a major disaster in our region, New Yorkers are generous and often think first of the Red Cross. But few people realize that the Red Cross responds to many, many more "small" disasters—including around 3,000 fires a year, most of those in people's homes. These events don't usually make it to the headlines, but they turn life upside down for those affected. Many of them have lost their homes, their possessions and their security. The Red Cross provides immediate assistance in the form of food, shelter and emotional support—at no cost to them.

We need to be ready to help our neighbors in need, so we must be ready for the disasters that we know will occur—tomorrow, next month, next year, and each year after that. That's the basis of this campaign. Americans need help, and help can't wait.

RC: Okay, now let’s turn to your story. When did you become involved with the Red Cross?
RP: I've always been appreciative of charities that serve unique and fundamental needs. Sixteen years ago I realized the Red Cross does exactly that, and I wanted to see how I could help. Because it's a volunteer organization, I felt my money would go further than with some other charities. I visited my local Brooklyn chapter (it no longer exists as a separate entity; it's part of the Greater New York region) and talked to the director. It was clear that the volunteers needed support, so I decided to donate money to provide snacks and recognition awards. I joined the board and served on that board for six years.

RC: How did you come to join the Greater New York board that oversees the entire region?
PR: The Brooklyn chapter asked me to be their rep on the Greater New York board; I did that for a few years. At some point, the chapter chairs were asked to represent their chapters on the regional board instead. Terry Bischoff, the Greater New York CEO at the time, then asked me to join the Greater New York board in my own right.

RC: Your wife, Elisa Rapaport, is also involved with the Red Cross.
PR: I'll tell you how that happened. For several years I was head of the Volunteer Recognition Committee. Each year we nominate Red Cross volunteers to be recognized for their outstanding efforts. I shared some of the volunteer stories with Elisa, and she shared my admiration for their work and dedication. She asked how she could help.

At this point, we were living on Long Island, and she had been encouraged by other Tiffany Circle members to get involved on a community board. Elisa is now finishing her second year as a board member of the Long Island Red Cross, and she has co-chaired the Long Island ball for both of those years.

RC: Elisa is a lifetime member of the Red Cross Tiffany Circle Society of Women Leaders, women who invest $10,000 or more annually in their local Red Cross chapters. So is Lily, your three-year-old daughter.
PR: After the Tiffany Circle Society was launched in Greater New York, Elisa became a life member, along with our daughter, Lily. At three, Lily knows when she sees the Red Cross that it has something to do with her parents, and her face lights up. The main reason we've done this is to try to inspire others to encourage community involvement across generations. Our son, Sam, who is four, knows we volunteer and that volunteering is good. The older the children get, the more they'll understand what we do.

RC: Do you have any other special Red Cross stories?
PR: Elisa teaches philosophy at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y., and last year we took a class of hers down to New Orleans over Spring Break. As part of the course, we volunteered with the Red Cross in poor neighborhoods. It was a real eye-opener for many of these kids from Long Island. There's poverty here in New York, but not like in some other areas of the country. A couple of the students have since become AmeriCorps volunteers or active with Molloy College's Red Cross Club.

During that New Orleans trip we met a Red Cross employee who had had her purse stolen a few years before. She had been a 9/11 volunteer in New York. She said she didn't mind losing her wallet and money, but her 9/11 pin and a photo of her mother were in her purse and they were irreplaceable. When I got back to New York, we found her a Long Island 9/11 pin and she was very thankful.

RC: You became Greater New York board chair last June. Would you speak to that?
PR: As board chair, I try to be the oil that makes an engine go—the volunteers are the engine and I help smooth their path and make it easier for them to do what they need to do. I love the Red Cross; it's a truly special organization and part of every volunteer's life. They make their families and the Red Cross family one. They're here in the middle of the night; some of them squeeze their jobs into two days a week so they can spend three days a week at the Red Cross. After 9/11, one volunteer I know spent the next decade volunteering full time. He now works with the International Red Cross.

RC: Please talk a little about the organization's mission.
PR: Very few people know all of the amazing things we do. They may know about blood donations, which is a wonderful thing, but we also respond to every kind of disaster. People hear about the big ones, but approximately eight times a day in Greater New York we respond to fires, to people being evicted from apartment buildings, to floods and more.

When you lose everything in a fire, even if you and your family are okay, it's hard to pick up your life. Red Cross responders tell those affected, "It's okay. We know what you need to do next." We give them food, blankets, toothbrushes and a place to stay that night. We explain how to contact their insurance company and get medicine replaced. Sometimes they need to talk with a Red Cross mental health care professional. It's the worst day of these people's lives. We get them through that day and the next day and help them start to rebuild. I can think of nothing more important.

The work we do for the armed services is also essential. We send family news, either good or bad, to military members. Sometimes we help service members travel back home. It is humanitarian service and we get no money from the government to do this.

We are also still connecting survivors of the Holocaust; many volunteers are themselves Holocaust survivors. Sometimes, they'll work for ten years or more to find someone; there's no such thing as a "cold case."

In fact, we connect people after every emergency. Through the "Safe and Well" page on our website, people can say, "I'm safe." Or they can tell a Red Cross volunteer and we call it in and people in all parts of the country can know that their loved ones are safe.

RC: What do you plan to do when your term as board chair ends?
PR: I will continue to be involved with the Red Cross. I don't need a title to do what I do. I can be the person Red Crossers come to when they need to get a problem solved. That's why I became involved in the first place. There are thousands of good people doing important work with the Red Cross, and my job is to do my best to support them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When Help Can't Wait

by Gordon Williams, Red Cross Volunteer

Look at just one disaster scene, work your way through one burned-out dwelling and you’ll understand why the Red Cross can’t wait in rushing help to disaster victims.

Until you see it first-hand, you can't imagine the devastation a fire can cause. A fire doubles in size every 30 seconds. As it spreads, it consumes everything in its path.

I've been in burned-out apartments where not a single piece of furniture was recognizable as such. What little that remained intact—clothing, a mattress, a child's beloved toy—was soaking wet and reeking of smoke. I have responded to hundreds of disasters in my seven years as a volunteer with the Greater New York Red Cross. A few responses stand out in my mind:

• A large family in Queens huddled on their back porch—the only part of their house not destroyed by fire.

• An elderly couple in Brooklyn, comforting each other as our Red Cross van pulled up. The husband had carried his disabled wife to safety but all they had accumulated over a lifetime—even the wife's wheelchair—was destroyed.

• A fire in lower Manhattan that spread over a city block and left hundreds of people homeless.

The Red Cross doesn't respond only to fires. We're on the scene at building collapses, storms, blackouts, vacate orders and more—any event that leaves people homeless.

A vacate order is issued when a government agency decides a building is unsafe for human occupancy. Because the occupants are considered to be at risk, they are given just a few hours to leave a place where they may have lived for years.

I remember a vacate in Harlem—ordered after the fire department determined that illegal renovations had made the building structurally unsound. More than 60 tenants needed Red Cross help.

The Crucial Role the Red Cross Plays

The Red Cross can't restore what was lost in a disaster. But we can—and do—help people through the critical first hours and days after disaster strikes. We provide meals, clothing, emergency financial assistance and a safe place to sleep. We help those affected deal with physical and mental health issues. Finally, Red Cross caseworkers can help people make longer-term plans to get their lives back on track

The Red Cross responds to an average of seven disasters a day in New York City alone—almost 2,300 responses a year. And that does not count the disaster responses by volunteers in the surrounding counties that are also part of the Greater New York Red Cross region. The people affected by disaster that we help—their need for assistance is acute and immediate. And there’s never a charge for Red Cross assistance. Our help is free to New Yorkers in need. It is paid for by gifts from donors big and small, from every walk of life.

Why Time is Running Out

There's a special reason right now why help can't wait. A loyal donor to the Red Cross has issued a Challenge Grant as part of our Greater New York “Help Can’t Wait” fundraising campaign. Thanks to that grant, donors can increase their gifts to the Red Cross by 50% (Your gift of $10 immediately becomes a $15 donation).

But time is short. We must raise $500,000 by June 30 to gain the benefit of that matching challenge. That's why, this time more than ever, help just can’t wait!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Red Cross Experience

by Marne Braddock, AmeriCorps State and Community Outreach Coordinator

L to R: Arielle Ortiz, Mary Benton and Marnie Braddock
 In late December, I joined the American Red Cross Greater New York Region’s Community Outreach department as an AmeriCorps State member and Community Outreach Coordinator.

After joining the Red Cross, I learned more about the organization’s amazing work, not just in disaster response but in providing free emergency preparedness programs to at-risk communities across the Greater New York region, which encompasses Long Island, the Lower Hudson Valley, Westchester, N.Y., and Greenwich, Conn.

I have learned that 97% of the people who work for the Red Cross are volunteers, and that the Red Cross is open 24/7. Though the Red Cross, like many other organizations, has been affected by the recession, the organization continues to respond to roughly eight emergencies a day across Greater New York, as well as to teach approximately 50,000 people a year emergency preparedness skills and another 260,000 people a year First Aid/CPR and other lifesaving skills.

Working in the Community Outreach department, I present emergency preparedness programs to children and adults in all five boroughs. Almost every day I travel to a different location in New York City, meet interesting people, hear their stories and teach people how they can prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. I am personally responsible for presenting to all nonprofit organizations, associations, schools, senior, community and recreation centers and community and faith-based groups in Brooklyn.

Since my first presentation in January, I have learned that children and adults are eager to share their personal experiences.

For example, during a Ready New York presentation (a free 45-minute emergency preparedness presentation teaching NYC residents how to create a plan, build a supply kit, and keep loved ones safe and informed during times of disaster) for a PTA group in Manhattan, one parent mentioned that her apartment caught on fire and she did not know what to do, what to bring or what relief resources are available for victims of disasters through the Red Cross (i.e., shelter, food, financial support).

Another time, during a “Water Habits are Learned Early,” or WHALES Tales, presentation for children on water safety, one child mentioned that when his younger sister fell into a pool, he decided to throw her a floatation device rather than jump in after her because he was not a strong swimmer. I was so pleased to hear that he reacted calmly and rationally, saving his sister’s life in the process without endangering his own.

Hearing these stories has strengthened my passion for teaching emergency preparedness to various communities and has shown me the importance of learning such information.

In an emergency, quick decisions have to be made: If I smell gas, should I call the Fire Department before or after I leave my apartment? If a loved one is struggling in a pool, should I respond or call for help? If I have to evacuate my apartment, what should I have packed in my Go Bag? Knowing the answers to such questions in advance can determine one’s well-being, or even survival.

The Red Cross is made up of hard working, passionate people with a common mission to help communities in need. It has been a rewarding experience that I will continue to cherish.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Then and Now

By Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Ever since I was a kid I’ve had an affinity for fire trucks—I found them beautiful in all their loud, bright, red splendor. I had my own toy truck, and I loved it—in fact, I loved everything firefighter-related. I wanted to wear the helmet, boots, and jacket; and I really wanted to slide down one of those poles. I treasured my little red plastic fire helmet, and wore it with pride around the house.

Back then, I probably didn’t fully understand what a firefighter does, but I knew they were helpful and important thanks to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers.” In fact, the only reason I liked going to the grocery store was because it was down the block from a fire station, and if the firefighters weren’t busy, my parents would take me inside for a visit. I wasn’t allowed to slide down the pole, but I did get to try on a real fireman’s helmet and sometimes stick my little legs into a pair of their giant boots. I liked to imagine sitting behind the wheel of the fire truck, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

Other days, we wouldn’t get to go in the firehouse. The alarm would sound, and I’d watch as that bright red truck emerged with its sirens screaming. People and cars would part to make way, and the truck would speed off. I didn’t know or understand where it was going. I didn’t comprehend that every firefighter on that truck was about to risk his or her life. I just thought it was exciting—the truck, the lights, the noise.

Then one day many years later, firefighters were in our home—our apartment building—which stood burning as my husband and I waited on a frigid, snowy December night for the fire trucks to come. We watched helplessly as firefighters climbed through the window of our apartment to put the fire out. Since then, the sight of a firefighter has made me feel grateful—thankful that because of the brave and hardworking men and women that came that night, our building didn’t burn completely to the ground. They fought the wintry elements and the fire, and not a single life was lost.

I still think the fire truck is an amazing vehicle, but now that I’m older, and have seen them come to my home, they look different to me. Now, when I see fire trucks pass by in emergency mode, I wonder where they’re going. Is someone losing their business, their home, or their life in the flames? And if I’m close to my own home at the time, I can’t relax until I see the trucks pass my street without stopping.

That’s one of the things I unexpectedly lost in the fire, a complete sense of security (where fire is concerned). Even after we had returned to our apartment—a beautifully renovated home—there was some residual damage to navigate internally. Fear had crept in and eroded things. Knowing that the person who had accidentally started the fire still lived upstairs left us feeling uneasy.

On one afternoon in particular—not even a full week after we’d moved back in—we were walking home from the store—our shopping cart full of things like paper towels, frozen pizza, and dish soap. We were three or four blocks away from our building when we heard sirens, and then a caravan of fire trucks passed us. We both looked at each other. Neither of us said anything, but we simultaneously picked up the pace. Those trucks weren’t going to our block, let alone our apartment building, but until I was standing on my street corner, seeing with my own eyes that everything was okay, my heart hung heavily.

These are the little damage residuals that always remain in me after an accident or traumatic event. For years after my dog got attacked in the park, I walked with a big stick. After my first car accident, I drove with extra vigilance. And for months after our fire, I worried every time the smoke detector went off in a neighbor’s apartment, or I found myself part of a fire drill. And when smoke filled our hallway one year and one day after our fire (just two months after we’d moved back in), I worried. Was our home going up in flames again?

Turns out someone had fallen asleep with food in the oven and it had burned, producing a lot of smoke. It never got serious (though it could have). And it poked at a wound that was still raw for all of us who had been there one year and one day ago. I could feel a collective tension permeating the building, and I, myself, didn’t stop worrying until the firefighters had finished their inspection and left.

Trauma changes us—it reveals a possible danger and leaves us looking for a repeat. It takes away some of our security. It makes us look at the world (and our place in it) differently. After our building burned, I was certain that fire wasn’t finished with us. That having touched our home once, it now had an open invitation to come again.

With time, those fears have since started to disappear. I no longer get a sinking feeling in my stomach when a fire truck passes by. I don’t get as nervous when I smell smoke. I know that having a fire in our building doesn’t make us any more likely to have another one. But I still double-check that all the stovetop burners are off before I go out.

How and when did we finally get back into our home? All that (and more) in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why Help Can't Wait by Dianne Auger

Dianne Auger, pictured above, served as Interim CEO of the American Red Cross Greater New York Region between October 2011 and May 2012.

One of the first responses I was called to when I began as a staff member with the Red Cross will always be the moment I realized the important impact the Red Cross makes when people’s lives are turned upside down by disasters—not just the big ones that make the news, but the “everyday” disasters like home fires.

I was part of a team to deploy to a three-family house fire in the middle of a workday afternoon. It was about 3 p.m. when we left our chapter to go to the scene. Normally, we would arrive to fire engines and firefighters working to combat the fire. We pulled up to the address for the fire and no fire trucks were there. We found half of a three-family house left—the top floor was almost gone. On the front porch were about 25 people, from babies to grandparents, just sitting there, waiting.

We walked up to the group. One of them said, “The fire department left to go to another fire. They told us to wait here; that the Red Cross was coming to help.”

Our team worked for the next few hours to make sure these families had a place to stay, money to purchase clothing, food and baby supplies, and the emotional support they needed.

 I recall one of the moms coming home from work and seeing her home devastated. She was so calm and collected—I marveled at her grace under pressure and how she handled this terrible disaster. She knew she needed to take care of her family and that the time for her to cry would be later, once everyone else was settled.

As we drove away from the scene, I reflected back on the families sitting there, waiting for us to show up. I wondered, “What if the Red Cross didn’t show up? Where would they go? Who would make sure they had what they needed when they had just lost their home and possessions?”

That’s when it hit me—the Red Cross has to show up, and to do that, we need to enlist the support of everyone in the communities we serve to help. Whether through volunteering for the Red Cross, or making a financial contribution, or donating blood—or all three!—everyone can help the Red Cross show up for people who need it—when help can’t wait.

That’s why I’m honored to have been a Red Crosser for the last 19 years. As I leave our staff ranks and become a volunteer once again, I am making a donation to the “Help Can’t Wait” campaign and encouraging others to join me. I’ve seen firsthand why it’s critical that the Red Cross show up—time and time again—and I want to help ensure that now and in the future, no family ever has to face a disaster alone.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Victor Noble from Brooklyn Thanks the Red Cross

After a fire destroyed his apartment in Brooklyn this weekend, the Red Cross helped Victor Noble and a roommate with emergency funds, food, and emotional support.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

“People should be very, very happy you’re here.”

After a fire broke out in the basement of 201 East 120th Street in Manhattan the afternoon of April 27, the Red Cross responded to the scene.

Suliman Snipes, who lived on the first floor, heard neighbors shouting ‘fire” and rushed out to safety. Outside, he encountered Red Cross responders almost immediately and was “very, pleasantly surprised.”

Snipes, who didn’t know about local Red Cross disaster response, received temporary housing and met with a caseworker at the Greater New York Regional headquarters in Manhattan for help with his longer-term needs.

“The Red Cross is fantastic,” he said. “Everyone is friendly and very professional. People should be very, very happy you’re here.”