Friday, June 29, 2012

"When the Red Cross walked up I knew I could calm down."

by Gordon Williams

It's impossible to know in advance when disaster will strike—or to appreciate the degree of trauma and chaos victims will face when it does.

To Lew Eleanor McNeely, the scene was terrible when she returned from a Sunday morning outing with her 2½-year old granddaughter Angelina in mid-June to find her 10th floor Manhattan apartment engulfed in flames.

Firefighters were focused on battling the blaze; neighbors were themselves in shock and could not help ease her sense of panic and loss. No one was in a position to tell her what to do next. She had no food or diapers for the baby and almost no cash in her purse to buy more. She looked around the disaster scene and found herself alone.

“When you are in the eye of the storm, you need someone to guide and direct you,” she recalled. “But I felt I was on my own.”

Then two disaster responders from the American Red Cross—Cosmina Menghes and Tiara Youmans— arrived on the scene.

“When the Red Cross walked up I knew I could clam down. I knew they would have the answers for me. "It was like the parting of the waters,” Lew Eleanor said. “When they walked up, I knew I could calm down. I knew that someone would have the answers for me.”

Baby Angelina seemed fascinated by the responders’ Red Cross caps. They let Angelina play with one of the caps, which nicely distracted the infant. The crew began the process of registering Lew Eleanor into the system so Red Cross client services caseworkers could provide longer-term assistance. As they took control of the situation, Lew Eleanor felt her own sense of panic and hysteria drain away.

The Red Cross took care of her immediate needs for money to buy baby supplies by issuing a Client Assistance Card—a debit card that she could put to use almost immediately. The damage to the apartment was so great she could not spend the night there. The Red Cross provided her with emergency housing in a clean, safe lodging.

She visited the Red Cross offices in Manhattan and talked to a Red Cross representative about her longer-term needs. Luckily, the managers of her building were able to find her a new apartment almost at once. It helped that she has grown up in the building and that her father had been the building superintendent for 30 years.

It also helped that Lew Eleanor had been a valued tenant in the building—someone very special with a splendid work history and a lifetime filled with accomplishments. She not only spent 25 years teaching classes in adult literacy, but in the evenings she trained other teachers. Since retiring, she said, “I have tried to do everything on my bucket list."

She learned to swim, gave up smoking and taught herself Spanish. Next on the schedule is to travel to the Caribbean.

So the crisis is past and assistance from the Red Cross helped Lew put her life back together again. But there still are important lessons her experience can teach others.

The first is that disaster can strike anyone at any time. Lew Eleanor had spent a joyous day in the park with Angelina. They played in a playground, rode a carrousel, rolled down a grassy hill.

“It was a great, great day,” she said. “We were heading home, all grimy and grassy and sandy, toward what should have been a nap for Angelina and some feet-up rest time for grandma.”

Instead she found her street clogged with fire engines and her apartment in flames.

The second lesson is to be triply careful you are not doing things that could bring disaster to your door.

The night before the fire she had lighted a prayer candle on Saturday night and assumed it had burned itself out by Sunday morning.

But it looks as though the candle had not extinguished itself and was the apparent source of the fire.

“The prayer candle took the apartment,” she said ruefully. “But we weren’t home when the fire began and the baby was never in any danger. That is the real answer to all my prayers.”

Lew Eleanor McNeely—Manhattan

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When It Rains, It Pours

By Sam Kille, American Red Cross

Monday morning, the email hit my inbox, "Pack your bags. Get a staff card. I'll be calling you in a few minutes." Several phone calls later, "Go to Mobile or Pensacola ... no, go to Orlando ... no, go to... " until I finally was at New York's LaGuardia Airport, bound for Tampa in response to Tropical Storm Debby as a spokesperson for the American Red Cross.

Of course, weather was problematic on both ends with severe storms. My 2:45 p.m. flight was pushed back several times and it would be well after midnight before I dragged myself into my hotel room. Knowing that The Weather Channel was broadcasting from North Redington Beach, I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m.

It definitely was wet and windy when I made it to the beach Tuesday morning. The normally calm Gulf was restless as waves crashed ashore. I got a little too close to one that left my boots sopping wet. To top it off, the news crew had already pulled up stakes to head north for landfall--wet for nothing, no interviews for me!

Shrugging it off, I decided it was time to find my own stories. I made a visit to the Tampa Red Cross offices--you've got to love the organized chaos of a relief operation. There, I learned that there were 22 emergency response vehicles available in-state, and 26 more on alert throughout the South. I learned that a dozen shelters had been open overnight and that mandatory evacuations were now taking place in New Port Richey. "Aha, there's my story!" and I hit the road.

Off and on, the heavens opened and dropped more unwanted rain. Even a sponge can only hold so much and I had to navigate my way around flooded roadways. "Recalculating" is a word I truly hate now but thank goodness for GPS technology, or I would have never reached my destination--Chasco Elementary School in Port Richey.

It was around 2 p.m. when I arrived. My goal was to get a few photos, maybe some video, and get back to my hotel quickly for some much needed rest. Best laid plans, right?

Inside, about a dozen evacuees were watching television and sharing a few laughs, during a trying experience. And while they were comfortable and in good spirits, the cots hadn't arrived yet and I'd missed lunch--leaving me little to work with to "tell the Red Cross story" in Port Richey. Yep, it turned into a long afternoon.

But like any Red Cross experience, just when I started to grumble to myself, the "little things" started to add up.

I was standing outside talking to a Pasco County sheriff deputy when a bus arrived with a few evacuees. One of them was an elderly woman who could not walk unassisted. As we went to help, the skies opened wide and I quickly felt like a drowned rat. It took a while to help the woman down the steps and to her walker. Oddly, the moment her first foot hit the ground, the rains stopped and the sun came out!

Soon after helping her into the shelter, another elderly woman started to make her way in. She took a look around the room. Shook her head and then said, "No, I can't. I just can't," and then walked out. The deputy and I followed her to see what was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it but she spoke with a European accent and kept saying she could not stay and wanted to go back to her apartment. She just couldn't understand why she had to leave, despite the fact that the first floor of her building was flooded and the utilities were turned off. We were having a hard time convincing her otherwise.

But then, out walked Barbara Buckland, a volunteer with the Tampa Bay Red Cross who was acting as the shelter manager. She threw her arms up and exclaimed, "Hi, I'm Barbara and I've been waiting all day for you to get here. You and I are going to be great friends!" She then hugged the woman and the tears began to flow--and sure enough the woman stayed.

A little while later, a young mother named Natallie came in with her 3-month-old daughter, Jennifer. Considering that most of the residents at this point were senior citizens, you can imagine how popular that baby became.

Eventually, the cots arrived! I finally had the images I needed. More importantly though, through the course of several hours I was able to witness the true power of the American Red Cross--comfort and hope.

And when it rains, it pours!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Red Cross Pet Therapy Volunteers Susan Henson and Darla, New City, New York

Darla, whose official name is “West Hill Do-Si-Do My Darla,” is an approximately four-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever owned by Susan and Elliot Henson. Darla was bred by Laura Lafreniere in Middlefield, Massachusetts.

Darla is the Henson’s fifth Labrador Retriever. All their Labs prior to Darla were males; goofy, wonderful, strong Labs. They were well trained. They competed in Obedience and Conformation obtaining many ribbons and Obedience Titles. The Hensons were heartbroken after the loss of their fourth Lab, Isaac. For their next dog, they were interested in other breeds but couldn't decide on a different breed so they decided to get a female.

Darla is outgoing and not quite as distracted as her male predecessors so Susan decided to socialize and train Darla as a therapy dog. Darla has also “trained herself” to sit by Susan’s side until a passerby or an acquaintance says, "Oh what a pretty dog!" That’s Darla’s cue to get up and say hello, get a pet or perhaps a treat.

She tries to get away with a “jump up” but Susan thinks they have that pretty much under control except when Darla visits with the Soldiers at West Point on Wednesdays with the Red Cross Pet Therapy Program. Darla is always very happy to see her new friends—dogs and soldiers alike.

The Soldiers are happy to see her as well. They play with her and pet her a lot. Darla loves the Soldiers’ play style (very loose and casual) and is totally exhausted when it’s time to go home.

Susan says the other dog visitation teams they work with are wonderful. Everyone cares about helping the Soldiers.

“This special privilege and opportunity to help our Soldiers makes us feel very special indeed.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What the Red Cross Means to Me

By Gordon Williams
I've been a Disaster Planning and Response volunteer at the Greater New York Red Cross for the past seven years—six as a disaster responder and the past year as a dispatcher in the Emergency Communications Center. But I’ve been running after fire engines a lot longer than that.

My dad was a newspaperman in Chicago, who couldn’t resist racing to the scene of a hot story. The radio in every car he owned was modified to receive police and fire calls. More than once as a child, I remember being awakened by my dad in the middle of the night and told, “There's a great fire, let's go.”

“Howard, the boy needs his sleep,” my mom would say. “Nonsense,” my dad would answer, and off we would go, driving through the dark toward an orange glow in the sky.

My father knew the men at the local fire house and I spent many Sunday mornings there—dad chatting with the firefighters and me climbing over the apparatus. My favorite perch was the tiller seat—the secondary steering wheel at the back of a hook-and-ladder, used to steer the rig around tight corners.

Chasing Fire Engines for a Living

My first job was as a police reporter on a Chicago newspaper, covering crime and fires. Ever hear of a fire burning 14 days? This one was in a refrigerated warehouse, with cork-insulated walls a foot thick. Day-after-day the fire burned through the cork, one floor after another collapsing until the whole building was a mountain of ruble. I stopped off each morning on my way to work, looking for fresh angles to the story.

The worst fire I ever covered came on the day in 1958 I formally presented an engagement ring to my then-fiancé (now my wife of 53 years). I gave her the ring, put her on a train back to college and went off to cover the Our Lady of Angels fire. The fire had burned through a parochial school on Chicago's West Side, killing 92 children and three nuns. More than a half-century later, the awful images of that day remain vivid in my mind.

My career in journalism went off in a different direction—from reporting on crime and disaster to covering business and global finance I spent 20 years as a writer and editor on Business Week magazine and 13 years as network business correspondent on television and radio for ABC News.

My First Tries at Volunteering

I retired from ABC in 1994 to start my own consulting business. Over the years I got involved in various volunteer activities. For example, I was one of five members of a committee created to bring the mission and message of a big national charity into the 21st century.

All my volunteer work seemed to involve endless meetings that led to reports and recommendations that ultimately never seemed to lead anywhere at all. I spent a lot of time and effort, but never saw anyone receiving any direct benefit from my work.

Volunteering With a Difference

Hurricane Katrina jolted me awake as it did many people. I went to the old Red Cross building on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan and signed up for training as a disaster responder. And that opened the door to what for me has been “volunteering with a difference.” I have attended few meetings, written no reports at all. What I have had is countless opportunities to provide direct, face-to-face help to people whose need for help is critical.

Actually my first major response in 2006 is still one of my most memorable—a four-alarm apartment house fire in Queens that left 65 people homeless in 17 non-habitable apartments. It was my third training shift and only the second for Melody, my fellow responder in training. Red Cross supervisors Danny Reyes and Jean Sylla raced upstairs to start the disaster assessments. Melody and I found the only lighted dry spot in the building—the basement laundry room—and started registering clients for Red Cross assistance. We wound up transporting two busloads of clients to a nearby motel.

Hitting the High Points

So what are the high points of seven years as a Red Cross volunteer?

It has been exciting. There’s no telling when a shift begins, what will happen. You might spend the shift at the chapter, never going out. Or you might spend a frantic night, going from one incident to the next. After one very busy night, another responder and I were having a pre-dawn meal in a fast food place in Queens—a late dinner or an early breakfast, we never decided.

Our clothes were damp and smeared with soot. We both gave off a decidedly pungent smell of smoke. The other responder looked at me and said he doubted that anyone else in New York City had spent the evening quite as we had. Not since my days as a working journalist have I experienced the adrenalin rush that some of my Red Cross responses have given me.

I think New York is the greatest city in the world and being a Red Cross volunteer has given me an active and fulfilling role to play in the life of my city. As volunteers we become part of New York in a way few people ever experience. Eight million people live in New York, and we are among those who make a difference.

The Satisfaction of Giving Back

I had a great career. At any given time, fewer than 200 people are correspondents for one of the big broadcast networks. For 13 years, I was one of them. I would like to think my talent accounted for that. The truth is I was blessed with great gobs of sheer good luck—being in the right place at the right time. I caught plenty of lucky breaks and now it’s time to give something to those who aren't as lucky as I was.

And that is the ultimate reward for being a Red Cross volunteer—meeting someone who has just gone through the worst experience of their lives and being able to help. We often get tired and wet and filthy on the job. Sometimes we have to take risks to do a damage assessment. In the end, being the first to offer help to someone who desperately needs help makes it all more than worthwhile.

--Gordon Williams, NY, NY

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Red Cross Pet Therapy Volunteers James and Elaine Cappuccino and Miss Lilly, Stony Point, New York

In 2004, Elaine Cappuccino’s Christmas surprise from her daughter, who lives in Maryland, was a two-pound, seven-ounce toy poodle that she named Miss Lilly. On the drive home, this little red fuzzy puppy with glistening eyes and floppy ears rested quietly on Elaine’s lap, knowing that she was safe and loved. And Elaine realized how fortunate she was to have Miss Lilly.

Elaine is a registered nurse forced into early retirement 20 years ago due to multiple sclerosis, which has affected her left leg and balance. Helping other people now seemed like a fading dream until a friend with a therapy dog, Judy Audevard and her dog Kizzy, suggested that the affectionate and loving Miss Lilly could bring joy to others. But how could Elaine accomplish such a feat with no balance?
The answer was Elaine’s walker. Miss Lilly was comfortable with wheelchairs and walkers, since Elaine uses both at home. Lilly rides in the low basket on Elaine's walker whenever they leave home and jumps in and out of the basket upon command.

Elaine contacted Therapy Dogs Incorporated and began the process of becoming a member in September 2007. She received special permission to have Miss Lilly ride in the walker during visits.

Once registered, Elaine, Miss Lilly and Elaine’s husband, Jim began visiting Riverview Assisted Living facility in Haverstraw, New York every week with therapy dog friends Kizzy (a Bichon Frise), and Brandy (a Standard Poodle).

Miss Lilly dances for the amusement of patients and does a few tricks, although the patients say she could get away without doing anything because she is so cute. One patient, who rarely spoke, gestured to her lap and, once Miss Lilly was there, hugged and kissed her and said “cute puppy.”

Miss Lilly even has a much-admired wardrobe. It consists of dresses, t-shirts, sweaters, sweat suits, coats, matching collars and leashes, and bows for her head. Treats are carried in a treat bag which clips on to her belt. Miss Lilly gets excited when Elaine puts bows on her or sees treats going into the bag.

Miss Lilly joyfully whimpers during the drive for a visit. She rides in the basket of Elaine’s walker and moves from person to person, sitting in their laps and showering them with kisses upon request while they cuddle and pet her.

Last summer the Cappuccinos and Miss Lilly and joined the Greater New York Red Cross Pet Therapy program and began visiting the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) at the United States Military Academy, at West Point, New York on Wednesdays. The mission of the WTU is to help soldiers with physical injuries, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, anxiety, depression and/or other emotional stressors brought about by battle and separation from family and loved ones to develop coping and relaxation skills.

At the WTU Miss Lilly joins several other dog-and-owner teams. The dogs help soldiers relax as they pet, play and interact with them. Because of her diminutive size, the soldiers pick her up and play with her and Miss Lilly responds by giving them kisses.

Elaine thoroughly enjoys this program. “The staff, soldiers and everyone at West Point are pleasant and helpful to us,” she says. “It's a cheerful environment with plenty of parking for us. Miss Lilly looks forward to her weekly visits with the soldiers and her pet visitation dog friends. Elaine also enjoys seeing the soldiers, the dogs and their handlers since they are all friends.

Jim, a Korean war veteran and member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, enjoys these visits as well; he enjoys talking with the soldiers because they share a common bond.

Because of Miss Lilly’s docile demeanor and loving personality, hospice visits may soon be in her future. The Cappuccinos and Miss Lilly thank Therapy Dogs Incorporated for blessing them with the opportunity to use their lives to bring a bit of sunshine into the lives of others.