What I learned at the 2019 Eastern PA Training Conference

By: Susan West

Volunteering never happens in a vacuum.

It takes a trained, well-oiled  team to serve people impacted by disaster, and the Red Cross Eastern Pennsylvania Training Conference, held for four days on the campus of Moravian College in Bethlehem, offered information overload for everyone. For logistics geeks, there was “ConOps”—a.k.a. “Concept of Operations” training, which explored the organizational structure of a relief operation. For Mass Care volunteers, a simulation session walked people through the steps of opening a shelter. For Disaster Action Team members, instruction focused on the recovery needs of people who have endured the worst times of their lives after a fire, flood, hurricane, or other emergency.

Empathy Education

Training is key. One of the most revelatory events at the conference was something called a poverty simulation, designed by Tammy Schoonover of the Bucks County Opportunity Council. The session was meant to challenge our assumptions about people who are under-resourced. After dividing the class into several three- to six-member “families,” Tammy assigned each family a set of circumstances—say, one working parent earning $9 an hour with a daughter in school, a disabled mother-in-law, and some public assistance. Then she threw curveballs at them—car breakdown, big utility bill, stolen purse, Dad with the flu, shuttered daycare. The exercise spotlighted the stress of living on the edge of debt. “Survival can be a full-time job for under-resourced families,” she said. “Poverty causes us to spin in a cycle of survival.” Dealing with impersonal social service bureaucracies, payday lenders, and unresponsive law enforcement can be frustrating and dehumanizing. If Tammy’s intention was to foster empathy and dispel myths about poverty, everyone agreed that she accomplished that goal.

Tammy Schoonover, Bucks County Opportunity Council

Classes and Camaraderie

Why do people volunteer? The reasons given were as varied as the curriculum at the conference. One attendee, a former telecommunications manager dealing with memory loss and cognitive impairment at age 61, is a fierce advocate for Alzheimer’s awareness. “I can’t do the complicated things anymore,” he told me, “but at least I can load trucks.” Others discovered the Red Cross after disaster touched them or a family member. Still others saw volunteering as ministry. “The more training we have, the more sensitive we become,” said one attendee.

Join the Fun

Volunteering has many benefits both physical and emotional. It combats isolation by getting us out into our communities. It helps prevent depression by instilling in us a sense of purpose. It helps us feel valued and part of a team. Perhaps most important, volunteering gives us a chance to leave a legacy and make a difference in the world. It’s good for us and it’s good for  society. The Red Cross has many roles for volunteers to fulfill, and the organization is committed to arming its volunteers with the tools and expertise needed to perform those roles. In short, the Red Cross will train you up good. For more information about how you can volunteer, go to https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html

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