Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Red Cross Volunteer Reflects on Her 9/11 Day of Service

By Megan Bruno
September 11 has become a day for Americans to pause, reflect and remember a painful tragedy that changed our history forever. I think it can also be a time to turn the hurt of losing lives into the hope of saving lives.

Imagine living in a world where nothing is convenient and simple necessities like food and clothing are difficult to obtain. Your daily worry would be how to fulfill your most basic needs. Now, imagine you are a doctor or nurse trying to fulfill those needs for several people: getting them proper medicine and supplies, food, or even a warm blanket. That is often the case in many countries in Africa.

On this year’s 9/11 anniversary, six Red Cross volunteers from the Metro New York North chapter, led by our hard-working coordinators, Carissa Duro and Andrew Sindell, went to the Afya Foundation warehouse in Yonkers, N.Y. The Afya Foundation obtains and ships vital supplies necessary to support medical and surgical initiatives worldwide, with a primary focus on Africa. Supplies are donated and gathered from hospitals, surgical center and corporations.

Upon arriving at Afya (which means “good health” in Swahili), initially one would think that this place is just like every other warehouse in an industrial section of Yonkers. In reality, the people inside were working furiously to package and send all different types of collected supplies. The majority were indeed medical supplies; however, we also came across some that addressed basic needs, such as clean drinking water and soap, which we in America often take for granted. For Afya, no donation is too bulky or too delicate; nothing is turned away or goes to waste.

What I enjoyed most about this experience was that it was truly a team effort. On the same day, Afya invited other volunteer organizations to help out along with the Red Cross. We all seemed to work together as a family, each of us having our own task but essentially working toward the same goal. Turisha Herbert, Afya’s volunteer coordinator, was proud of the mission and accomplishments of the organization, as she should be; its tremendous efforts do not go unnoticed. Through several resources, programs and donation opportunities, Afya proves that a little goes a long way.

Megan Bruno has been a volunteer with the Red Cross Metro New York North chapter for about 18 months, working with the Service to the Armed Forces and Blood Services programs.

Photos by Red Cross volunteer photographer Matthew LaMonica. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

If you asked me my name, I couldn’t tell you.

Disbelief … shock … sadness.

Sandra Simpson felt all these emotions while watching her basement become engulfed in flames on Labor Day 2012, then watching those flames leap to the first, and then the second, floor of her single-family, three-story home in Cambria Heights, New York.

The fire began when new bars were installed on the house’s basement windows. Without the welders’ knowledge, an errant spark had travelled into the basement, setting it afire. After the welders left, Simpson’s husband, who had gone outside to get the car, called his wife on his cell.

“Do you smell smoke?” he said.

He then spotted the flames, screamed for her to get out of the house, and called 911. (Luckily, their daughter, 19, was staying at her grandparents’ house.)

As they watched the flames spread, the fire department arrived. They quickly put out the blaze, which destroyed the basement and first floor, rendering the house unlivable.

“The Red Cross came maybe within a half hour,” said Simpson. “There were two responders, a brother and sister. Her first question to me was ‘Is everybody safe?” I told her yes. She asked me, ‘What do you need?’ She started to tell me about the Red Cross and all they could provide. She was so giving, so concerned.

“You’re dazed from what happened to you. You don’t know what to do or who to call and she provided such good information: ‘We’re going to get a hotel; if you need food, if you need clothes, we have those things in the van; tomorrow you’ll call the office. They’ll tell you if you need to come in and walk you through everything.’”

Simpson said that before the fire, she associated Red Cross only with CPR and blood donations.

“I had no idea that the Red Cross helped after a fire,” she said. “Before they arrived, I couldn’t think straight—and I’m a nurse. If you asked me my name, I couldn’t tell you. The responders calmed us down.”

After being dropped off at a nearby hotel, Simpson and her husband received many more calls from the Red Cross. “Everyone from the Red Cross who called said, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘You need to come in to see us.’ ‘Do you have food?’ ‘Did you get your debit card?’ I can’t thank the Red Cross enough.”

Sandra Simpson, Queens, N.Y.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Jill Bellinson, Red Cross Mental Health Volunteer, Reflects on 9/11

September 11, 2012

Red Cross (RC): How many 9/11 memorial ceremonies have you attended as a mental-health volunteer?

Jill: I joined the Red Cross on 9/11 as a mental health volunteer, so today is my anniversary, too. In 2001, we got a short briefing and I started my shift with an experienced, long-time mental-health leader from the National Red Cross. I worked at Ground Zero for the first month and at the Family Assistance Center at the Piers after that.

RC: What does 9/11 mean to you?

Jill: It’s a marker of my work with Red Cross. That day the world changed, including mine, in so many ways. I’ve worked with so many hundreds of people affected by 9/11 over the years. I worked for Project Liberty, New York's crisis counseling program created in the aftermath of 9/11, for a year or two afterward.

RC: What was today like?

Jill: This year, there was a smaller Red Cross presence—just four of us in the reader’s tent, which is a large tent where those who read the names of those lost wait their turns. There are about 200 readers. Some have guests, chaperones, and aides with them. We are there to lend emotional support.

Many readers are all nervous about speaking. Sometimes that overwhelms what they feel about the rest of the day. They read the names of about 16 people whom they don’t know. The last name they read is their person, and they’re told they may say something about them—what they were like or how they always had dinner together or some phrase their loved one always said.

Some are members of a large extended family, and other family members have read in past years; this time was their time. They want to do this right. After they read the names, they’re often drained. They meet their other family members at that point.

Another touching thing someone told me: One woman who lost two family members, and is still very teary and grieving quite a bit, said she has a little package of Red Cross tissues that we gave her at the first commemoration that she keeps with the mementos of the family members she lost. That was important to her.

A lot of people said they were grateful for us being there. That always makes me feel good—I appreciate that Red Cross allows me to make some small difference in someone’s life.

Jill Bellinson, Manhattan, N.Y.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My Red Cross Dress Code Post-9-11

By Chi Kong Lui, who has been with the American Red Cross Greater New York Region since November 2000.

Red Cross vehicle parked near Ground Zero on September 11, 2001.
(Photo: Luis Avila)
Whenever I come to work dressed in a suit and tie for special events, I get many strange looks and comments like “You look so nice!” I always laugh a little because even though I know my colleagues don’t mean it as an insult, it indirectly implies that I don’t normally look so nice.

I also laugh because there was a time when I use to come to the office every day in a dress shirt and tie, but that all changed after September 11, 2001.

On that Tuesday, I came to work as the webmaster of the American Red Cross in Greater New York at our old location on 66th and Amsterdam Avenue (right behind Lincoln Center) like any other day. But things quickly shifted as word trickled through the office of the terrorist attacks.

Some my colleagues and I had gathered in the Public Relations department and we watched in stunned silence as the two towers of the World Trade Center fell on live television.

That stunned silence would prove to be the calm before the storm as hundreds and thousands of New Yorkers flooded our plaza and lobby, all wanting to volunteer to help any way they could. Those people were willing to do almost anything, so desperate were they to make sense of the madness had befallen the city.

The nyredcross.org web site I managed was inundated with traffic that brought the speed of the site to a crawl, and the webmaster inbox was soon flooded with hundreds—and eventually thousands—of emails from people looking for information on loved ones or information on how they could help.

The rest of the day proved to be a blur. With the help of our web host and several volunteers, we were able to manage the massive flow of traffic and emails that would follow in the weeks to come.

That night, after receiving some heartfelt hugs from my colleagues, I left the office to see my then girlfriend (who would later become my wife) in Brooklyn.

As I rode the subway to her, I pondered how the world would be different in a “post-9-11” world. I got that answer more quickly than I’d expected as the subway pulled in the 34th Street (Penn) station, police officers began to scream at the top of their lungs to evacuate the station.

The immediate thought of dying in a train station made my heart pound.

Dozens of other passengers and I frantically poured out of the subway and into the streets of the city and ran south for blocks as police officers continued to wave us through.

Eventually I stopped running, my pulse returned to normal and I walked on through to the 14th Street Union Square station and jumped on another train to Brooklyn. I never found out why we were evacuated from the subway that night.

The following day, after spending the night at my girlfriend’s place, I must have went back to work in the same clothes as the night before. I’m sure no one in the office even cared or noticed as we all continued to respond to the disaster—providing support to first responders, emergency radio communications to city agencies and eventually, assistance to the families who lost loved ones.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to dress differently after September 11. It simply became clear to me how important the work we do at the Red Cross is, and worrying about what I wore to work took a backseat to making sure I wore my Red Cross ID badge around my neck each morning.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Twenty-year Red Cross Volunteer Ana Torres Deploys to Mississippi

New Rochelle resident and 20-year American Red Cross volunteer Ana Torres deployed to the Gulf Coast last week as part of the Red Cross relief effort for Hurricane Isaac. We chatted with her just before she left.

Tell us about your deployment.
I’m gonna be traveling to Meridian and then to headquarters in Harrisburg, Mississippi.

So you’ll be in Harrisburg.
Usually you go to a Red Cross disaster “headquarters” and from there they send you to the different places where they have need. If I’m needed in New Orleans I’ll be sent to New Orleans. Until I get to Harrisburg, I won’t know where I’m going to be working.

Describe your role.
I’ll be doing casework—interviewing the people that are affected by the storm. We find out what they lost and help them with their immediate needs. (On other deployments, Torres worked at a shelter and served food.)

You know, you just sit down and talk to the people because it’s hard for them. And you try to console them, tell them it’s not the end; that we’re here to help them.

I’m bilingual so if there’s anybody that speaks Spanish I’ll be able to take care of them. I’ve done that in a lot of the places that I’ve been to. I’m able to give a little bit more help.

Is it easy to just leave home for a deployment?
I don’t work, so I’m able to. My husband doesn’t mind me going, sharing myself. I feel like I’m a better person being able to share myself with others.

What kind of things do you pack for a disaster deployment?
The first time you take a lot of stuff but now I don't take so much, especially if there’s a store and I can buy whatever’s necessary. But I have special tops I can wash by hand if I don’t find a place to do the laundry. You have things you take that you know you can use if it’s very hot or cold. And shoes to walk in the mud, if there’s mud.

You deployed for Hurricane Katrina. What does it feel like going back to almost the same area?
Hopefully I will find that there’s not as much damage as when I went for Katrina. But there’s always something. I don’t think this time it’s going to be as devastating as it was for Katrina. And hopefully it’s not the same people that got hit last time.

How long are you deploying for this time?
It might be just a week. They don’t want the volunteers to overdo it. The Red Cross is very good—they take care of you. They don’t want you to burn out.

Why do you volunteer with the Red Cross?
I want to share all the good things that I’ve been given. I’m able to give some of myself, to other people. It makes me feel good, especially when people thank you for helping.

Hurricane Isaac Relief: "Bringing people together to help them get through the worst day, or sometimes weeks, of their lives."

Sam Kille speaks with Jim Cantore, of The Weather Channel, about the Red Cross response to Hurricane Isaac. Behind them is a flooded neighborhood in Slidell, LA., just one of many communities impacted by Hurricane Isaac.
By Sam Kille, Greater New York’s regional communications director, was deployed to Louisiana for a week as part of the American Red Cross Advanced Public Affairs Team (APAT). APAT members are tasked with sharing the story of Red Cross disaster relief with the media, working in federal or state emergency operations centers as public information liaisons, and gathering photos and video clips to share through www.redcross.org and on social media.

Being more than a thousand miles away, during a time when politics is grabbing most of the headlines, it’s easy to forget that Hurricane Isaac slammed the Gulf Coast last week. It’s a little harder for me though, because I spent just over a week there—before, during and after landfall.

As an American Red Cross worker for more than five years, I’ve worked a few coastal storms. I actually felt a great sense of déjà vu, revisiting many areas of Louisiana that I worked in following Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

Yet this storm definitely was different. The rain and wind sat atop of us for 24 hours straight. The power outages were massive and there were several floods. Places like Plaquemines Parish were under 10 feet of water.

Even after landfall, things didn’t get any better—very unsettling was the news of an evacuation of nearly 50,000 people in Tangipahoa Parish due to a potential dam breach. There’s a certain sense of “what’s wrong with this picture” when headed toward trouble, driving unimpeded on an interstate in one direction, while the opposite is filled with traffic.

Thousands of people turned to the Red Cross for safe shelter because of Isaac. At one point, shelters were open from Florida to Texas. Even a week later, many are still waking up in shelters in Louisiana and Mississippi.

I had the opportunity to visit a shelter in Hammond, La. Half of the nearly 300 evacuees had been there for days. They had heeded government warnings and smartly evacuated their low-lying communities surrounding New Orleans. Yet now, they were tired and worried about whether or not they had homes to return to.

The rest were new evacuees from Tangipahoa—they left their homes with little warning—many with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Most disasters have a heightened sense of emotion and stress—yet the timing of Hurricane Isaac couldn’t have been worse—the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Now, by no means was this a Katrina, but for those who survived it, old wounds were reopened.

While I heard many stories, there is one I cannot shake. “Queen” as she likes to be called, is a waitress at a restaurant in New Orleans. When the city flooded following Katrina, many in her neighborhood sought refuge in a school that was on higher ground. They were even fortunate enough to have a boat they could use to get in and out.

One day, they saw a woman walking through more than four feet of water. She had a child in each arm, their heads resting on her shoulders. Queen and her neighbors kept yelling out, “Stop! We have a boat, we’re coming for you.” The woman kept walking despite their warnings. Unlike the residents who knew where the hazards in the street were, the woman didn’t. In horror, Queen watched as the woman walked over an open storm drain—sucked in, three lives lost in an instant.

Yet despite the fear of what the future holds for many in the Gulf, I did witness many moments of hope. In Westwego, I visited a mobile feeding kitchen being operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, a partner of the Red Cross. There, 35,000 warm meals are being cooked each day and then loaded onto Red Cross emergency response vehicles which fan out into affected communities. And this is only one site!

Even in the shelters, people are adapting and making the best of their circumstances. In Hammond, I watched two dozen kids gleefully set the place settings in the cafeteria for dinner. The shelter manager had found that by putting the kids to work, it cured their boredom (after all, no TV or video games) and gave them a sense of community.

And that’s what the American Red Cross is all about—bringing people together to help them get through the worst day, or sometimes weeks, of their lives.

Sadly, the damage in the Gulf is far greater than most probably realize. While the Red Cross is doing all it can, it truly needs your help. Shelters remain open and vital supplies are still being distributed. Please consider a donation today by visiting redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS, or by texting REDCROSS to 90999, to give $10.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Red Cross Pet Therapy Volunteers Raena Korenman and Truffles, Newburgh, New York

When Raena Korenman and her husband, Alan, visited a poodle breeder, only one tiny chocolate poodle was available to be shown. That little ball of fur went over, licked Alan, climbed on his lap and curled up to go to sleep. The rest is history. The Korenmans took Truffles Piper Shadow Korenman home.

At just three pounds, Truffles started "pet therapy" work almost immediately. Two months after adopting Truffles Raena had knee replacement surgery and Truffles began "visiting" Raena in rehab. The moment Truffles arrived, word would get out and patients would flock to Raena’s room to hold and be comforted by the tiny creature.

At home the first command Truffles learned was “Go”—meaning, go up or down the stairs before Raena, so Truffles wouldn’t get crushed by a crutch or make Raena slip, trip or fall. Truf learned so fast that the Korenman’s knew their tiny bundle would make a wonderful therapy dog.

Today, at five-and-a-half pounds, Truffles is in her fifth year of making people smile and comforting those in need. She has worked at Elant Nursing Home in Goshen, N.Y., Cubs Place (a gathering spot for children whose families are in distress) in Newburgh, N.Y., the Sarasota Florida library, where children in a Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.) program read to Truffles, and at a R.E.A.D. program at an elementary school in Nokomis, Florida.

Truf’s most recent and favorite spot is at the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) at West Point as part of the Red Cross Pet Therapy program. The other visiting dogs are the BIG guys that the soldiers love to wrestle with and pat. Yet Truffles heads out all excited in her camouflage scarf and brings just as much comfort and joy to the soldiers who sit and cuddle her.

Next up for Truffles will be certification as Raena’s personal service dog. Always at Raena’s side, Truffles has comforted Raena through everything from joint replacements, to stroke, to cancer. She doesn't care what may be wrong with Raena—or anyone else for that matter. Truffles just cares about providing much-needed comfort. Truf may be tiny, but knows she does a hefty job wherever she goes.