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.

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