Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“The Red Cross was there to help me and I really appreciate it.”

By Dorothy He

For Kaydian Grennan of Far Rockaway, it was a typical morning at her uncle’s two-story house. She and her four young children were enjoying their usual routine of breakfast while watching TV. Without warning, the fire alarm went off, and thick smoke started billowing from the stairwell down into the kitchen.

Kaydian grabbed her kids and looked for an escape. She recalled, “I knew I wasn’t cooking. I smelled something burning, like rubber, and saw a dark, dark smoke. We just ran—we only had on pajamas.”

When the Grennan family had made it safely outside, they used a neighbor’s phone to dial 911. First responders came to put out the fire, which was caused by the air conditioning unit in the house. Unfortunately, the house was destroyed. 

Kaydian was worried. Her uncle and cousin were her only family. She thought, “What am I going to do? I have no clothes, nowhere to go.”

Then, within the hour, the Red Cross arrived on the scene. After speaking with Kaydian, they provided her and her family with a two-night stay at a local hotel and emergency funds for food and clothing.

Having been affected by Hurricane Sandy last year, with no light or power for weeks, Kaydian was especially distraught at the loss of her home. However, having the support of the Red Cross gave her extra reassurance.

Kaydian said, “You don’t know how [relieved] I felt when the Red Cross responder told me, ‘I will place you in a hotel,’ and gave me that card. “The Red Cross was there to help me and I really appreciate it,” Kaydian said. “My kids and I slept comfortably last night.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Upholding the Rules of War in NYC

by Michael de Vulpillieres, American Red Cross Greater NY Region

Every day we are confronted with images of war—on television, online, in movies, even in videogames. With news of refugees crossing borders and ambulances under attack, the recent crisis in Syria has brought added attention to armed conflict and the consequences it can have on millions of civilians. These tragic events remind us that even war should have limits.

This is why understanding International Humanitarian Law (IHL)—guidelines that seek to protect civilians and regulate the methods of warfare—is so critical.

The Red Cross was founded on these ideals more than 150 years ago and today in New York City they are actively promoted by two Red Cross offices. The American Red Cross in Greater New York does so locally, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the United Nations defends them on a global stage.

Rooted in Wartime Relief

Horrified by the sight of thousands of wounded soldiers lying helpless and abandoned after a huge battle in Solferino, Italy in 1859, Swiss businessman Henri Dunant felt compelled to act. In the years that followed, Dunant set forth a process that led to the creation of “voluntary relief societies that could be trained to care for the wounded in time of war.” These national societies eventually united under the Red Cross symbol.

As the Red Cross network grew, its scope evolved to encompass not only issues of conflict, but also natural disasters, health crises and other humanitarian emergencies.

Although there are several entities that make up the Red Cross (or the Red Cross Movement, as it is also called) today, one branch focuses on situations of conflict: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Their mission is to provide humanitarian assistance for people affected by conflict and promote laws that protect victims such as civilians and health workers in Syria.

Photo: Liz Borda
Assisting Families Separated by War and Promoting IHL in NYC

The American Red Cross in Greater New York mainly provides assistance following local disasters. However, as part of the Red Cross Movement, the office does at times deal with issues related to war. When it does, it works through the ICRC.

One such program is Restoring Family Links, which helps reconnect family members who are separated by war. By relying on its staff and partners around the world, the ICRC is able to serve those searching for lost loved ones. Due to this extensive network, for example, the Greater NY Red Cross is able to help New Yorkers like Christine Green—who fled her native Liberia in the mid 1990s—reconnect with family members she did not even know were alive.

“I did not hear from my family in Liberia for 14 years,” says Green. “Thanks to the Red Cross, I was able to reconnect with them.”

Another way the Greater NY Red Cross promotes the ICRC mission is by teaching high school students the basic principles of IHL. The goal of the curriculum is to inspire future humanitarians to understand when conflict intersects with the rights and protections of civilians. Lessons taught during the program also help teenagers contextualize current events they read about.

Seventeen-year-old Johanna Monge from Queens was a student who participated in the IHL curriculum. The class has helped her focus her future career path as well. Monge now aspires to pursue international relations in order to become involved in humanitarian work. She says of the IHL classes, “they really helped me understand the treacherous path that humanitarian aid workers have to go through in order to help the Syrians in need.”

Defending IHL at the UN

While the Greater New York Red Cross promotes ICRC principles locally, less than a mile to the east, the ICRC office at the United Nations does so on a global stage.
The ICRC has held Observer Status at the UN since 1990, which allows it to participate in UN meetings, committees and debates. This includes thematic discussions about the protection of civilians or children in armed conflict, as well as geographic crises like the conflicts in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, the ICRC voices its opinion and provides input within its frame of expertise.

“We make sure that ICRC concerns are fed into the UN and shared with member states,” says Walter Fuellemann, head of delegation to the United Nations at the ICRC.

An example of ICRC advocacy is Health Care in Danger, a program launched last year with the intent to raise awareness of the issue of violence against healthcare.

Attacking healthcare workers and facilities and deliberately obstructing the efforts of the wounded to find help are still common features of conflicts throughout the world. While the Red Cross Movement is “rooted in the protection of health care in conflict zones,” as Fuelleman emphasizes, many of those who try to help are injured in the process. The goal of Health Care in Danger is to mobilize action within the international community in order make a difference for those affected on the ground.

So far, the program has seen much success. “We strive to include Health Care in Danger language into resolutions and presidential statements at the level of the Security Council,” says Fuellemann. “We have been able to do so on several occasions.”

Another major opportunity for the organization is at the UN General Assembly (GA). There, the ICRC engages states on the topics of humanitarian action, peacekeeping and humanitarian law. Fuellemann describes the ICRC’s role in the GA as unique, saying, “The GA allows the ICRC to interact in the same place and time with every state in the world, all of which are signatories to the Geneva Conventions.”

Nevertheless, the work of the ICRC at the UN is not limited to advocacy. The ICRC’s presence in nearly every conflict zone around the world allows it to provide real-time updates from the ground, which helps shape UN policy.

In Syria, the ICRC and local partners have been providing humanitarian assistance to millions of people affected by the fighting, but there are considerable challenges.

“The suffering of civilians in Syria has now reached unprecedented levels,” says Fuellemann. “There are acute shortages of food, water and medical supplies in a number of areas that have been sealed off for months and to which the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have not been given access.”

These grave concerns make the ICRC’s efforts here in New York and around the world all the more urgent.
Photo: Syrian Arab Red Crescent

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

“I appreciate everything Red Cross has done for us.”

By Dorothy He

Ronald Bethea of the Bronx awoke one morning to a dark apartment. Thinking his lights might not be working, he went to check on the breakers. That’s when he noticed a nightmarish heat coming from his son John Faison’s room—it was an electrical fire.

Ronald recalled, “I ran out of the apartment. Smoke was everywhere. It was black; I couldn’t even see my hand. I ran out the front door into the hallway. I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to call somebody.’”

A neighbor saw Ronald and offered assistance, but didn’t have a phone. In a panic, Ronald ran back into his bedroom and snatched up his cell phone. After making it safely outside, he dialed 911 and waited for assistance. First responders arrived on the scene within 10 minutes, as did the Red Cross.

As EMS workers aided the wheezing Ronald, who suffers from asthma, Red Cross responders spoke to his family members who had rushed to the scene. Ronald called John, who works in the music industry, and thankfully was not home at the time of the fire.

The Red Crossers then talked with Ronald. He and John were offered temporary housing and access to emergency funds, but declined the housing, as they were able to stay with one of Ronald’s sisters.
 Nevertheless, a volunteer gave them contact information for the Red Cross.

When Ronald and John came to Red Cross headquarters in Manhattan, their first concern was housing.

Ronald worried, “We have no other place to go. We’re not homeless, but [at the same time], we are.” A Red Cross caseworker assisted the pair in their search with a referral to the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and emergency funds to cover basic necessities.

“Words can’t say ... more. I appreciate everything Red Cross has done for us,” Ronald said. “They were on point from the time we walked through the door.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Remembering 9/11: D.A.R.T. – A Brotherhood of Service

The heroic actions of the firefighters who rushed into the smoke and flames of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 are almost legendary. They gave so much, and 343 paid the ultimate price, giving up their lives to save the lives of others. What few people may know is that five of those who perished were members of the Red Cross Disaster Assistance Response Team, or D.A.R.T., a group of firefighters with Red Cross training who donate their time to help others.

D.A.R.T. was formed as a partnership between the FDNY and the American Red Cross in Greater New York in 1989, when 18 active-duty firefighters responded to an urgent Red Cross call for bilingual volunteers to help 90,000 families in Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Hugo. The firefighters were trained by Red Cross and then deployed to Puerto Rico with Red Cross.

Since then, disaster responses have taken members of D.A.R.T. to some of the largest, most devastating natural and human-caused calamities of the last two decades. None hit closer to home than the tragic events of September 11th, 2001.

On that day, D.A.R.T. members numbered 110, most of them active-duty firefighters. Many D.A.R.T. members rushed to lower Manhattan with their respective fire companies, running into the smoke and flames to save lives.

Luis Fragoso, the current chair of the organization, and one of the founding members of D.A.R.T., was assigned to RAC-4 on Roosevelt Island on 9/11, where Special Ops is headquartered. Later that morning, he responded to Ground Zero, where he worked on and off until the end of January.

Fragoso remembers calling into the D.A.R.T phone message line and hearing dozens of messages from retired firefighters who were eager to help with the rescue and recovery operation. (Active firefighters, who were on call at their respective firehouses during this period, were unable to respond with D.A.R.T.)

Fragoso asked two other D.A.R.T. members, Ret. Captain Francis J. Bernard and Ret. Lieutenant Matthew Kiernan, to run the 9/11 D.A.R.T. operation. Bernard and Kiernan stepped up and worked out of the Red Cross Brooklyn chapter, retrieving calls and assigning D.A.R.T. member the tasks of assisting the families.

Many of the more than 120 retired FDNY responders who assisted D.A.R.T. during the 9/11 relief effort eventually joined the group.

Mike Mondello was one of those firefighters.

On 9/11 Mondello was home with his grandchildren in Rockland County, watching TV “in shock.” He immediately packed his gear onto his truck and headed to New York City. Finding the bridges closed, he turned back, ending up at a local dock, where he “hitched” a ride with a man willing to take him and three nurses who also needed transportation to Manhattan on a small private boat. “I can’t tell you what made me go to that dock or where this guy came from, but that’s something I’ll cherish my whole life,” Mondello said.

Mondello checked in with a makeshift command center set up at Ground Zero. “This was still in the opening hours. In the chaos, you picked your own assignment.” He worked at the site for about a week. Then he heard that D.A.R.T. was asking for firefighters to help out at the Red Cross Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 where survivors and family members of those who perished received food, beverages and emotional support. Mondello decided this was something he wanted to assist with.

In the six months that followed, D.A.R.T. alternated between search and recovery at Ground Zero and supporting grief-stricken families of victims. Mondello says of helping the families, "We worked 24/7, taking survivors to doctor’s appointments, shopping, wherever they had to go.”

He said it was especially meaningful for D.A.R.T. members to be helping the families of fallen firefighters. “We had a deep personal connection with them and they with us. There was a level of comfort in that they felt that a brother was taking care of a brother.” In fact, Mondello called supporting the families “a life-changing experience.”

Most, if not all, D.A.R.T. members feel the same about their D.A.R.T. service. “Without being involved with DART there would be a void in my life,” said Robert Reeg, a WTC responder who joined D.A.R.T. in 2006. “It gives you a feeling of fulfillment, and I think everybody needs a bit of that.”

Although Reeg was seriously injured on 9/11 by falling debris, he was fortunate to live to tell about his experience. Sadly, one of the five D.A.R.T. members who died was a good friend of Reeg’s, “an all-around warm, caring guy to work with and a committed firefighter.”

“It was very tough to lose those guys,” said Fragoso. “They were dedicated to D.A.R.T., dedicated to the Red Cross and dedicated to the people of New York.”

Although Mondello didn’t know the five who were lost on 9/11, he said, “They were still my brothers.”

Reeg added that the D.A.R.T members and other firefighters who lost their lives during 9/11, "died doing something they loved. We’re a brotherhood and a sisterhood and we like to give back to the community. We honor their memory by continuing to serve."

Through D.A.R.T. they are able to do just that.

The Greater New York Red Cross pays its deepest respects to the five D.A.R.T. members who lost their lives on 9/11 and to their families: LT. David J. Fontana; SQ-1, FM. Vincent D. Kane, Engine-22; LT. Thomas R. Kelly, Ladder-105; FF. Gregory Saucedo, Ladder-5; and FF. Gerard Schrang, Rescue-3. 

LT. David J. Fontana
SQ - 1

FM. Vincent D. Kane
Engine - 22

LT. Thomas R. Kelly
Ladder - 105

FF. Gregory Saucedo
Ladder - 5

FF. Gerard Schrang
Rescue - 3

Red Cross Workers Learn About the Evolving Role of Recovery

On Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, Ken Curtin, federal disaster recovery coordinator for FEMA Region II, spoke to American Red Cross Greater New York Region workers about the historical context of recovery, the evolving nature of recovery operations and the partnership the Red Cross has with the federal government in recovery efforts. 

FEMA Region II includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Curtin has nearly 40 years of experience in disaster and emergency human services, and has worked on assignments in 25 states and 31 countries. He formerly served as disaster services director for the Red Cross Greater New York Region.

Pictured L-R: Malcolm Hardy, Red Cross Government Liaison; Jessica Pavone, Senior Director, New York Long Term Recovery and Ken Curtin, FEMA Region II Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Remembering Charlie DeStefano

Charlie DeStefano, a Red Cross volunteer for 18 years, truly embodied the humanitarian spirit of our organization, giving of himself to help New Yorkers when they needed it the most.

As a member of the Staten Island Red Cross Disaster Action Team, Charlie responded to hundreds of local emergencies—fires, floods and building collapses—helping countless residents recover. Whether assisting with housing, delivering supplies or simply offering a shoulder to lean on, Charlie did so with the utmost compassion and professionalism.

Charlie also came forward during some of the most tragic times our city has known. Following the attacks of 9/11, Charlie worked tirelessly to support families and first responders. More recently, in the hours, weeks and months following Superstorm Sandy, Charlie was out in the community driving Red Cross vehicles he loved so much, delivering supplies and providing comfort.

He passed his love of volunteering onto his wife Nancy. For nearly 12 years the two formed a dedicated Red Cross volunteer team.

Charlie has been a role model for us all and an inspiration for future generations of Red Crossers. Our thoughts are with his family.