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DSC_0168_7138In the early morning hours of January 23nd, there was a serious house fire in East Norriton, Montgomery County. Since my volunteer role at the SEPA Red Cross began, I’ve been in the habit of checking the local news each morning. That’s how I saw the interview with the Montgomery County fire chief where he explained that the recent cold snap created some special challenges for the responders. It took a while to find a working hydrant. Water froze on contact with everything it touched: the grass, the pavement, the house. The hoses froze to the pavement and could not be moved once the fire was extinguished. Two fire fighters were hurt slipping on the ice. Two residents were hurt jumping out of a second floor window. It is safe to say that 10 degree temperatures made a terrible situation even worse, but the fire fighters were there to do their job and they deserve our admiration and respect.

The American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania was also there. Volunteers rose in the middle of the night to be at the scene and care for residents forced out into the cold. They were there with financial assistance for food, clothing, shoes and winter coats to four people affected by the fire. Frozen hoses are not the only challenging consequence of a cold snap. Cold and fire are old friends. When heating bills become high and un-payable, people take risks to create heat. Stove burners are turned to high, a space heater overloads a socket, and an oven is turned to 500 degrees and left open.

In the last few frozen days, our volunteers responded to 10 fires in all five Southeastern, PA counties. We helped 48 people who were forced out of their homes. In every case, Red Cross volunteers were there side by side with fire fighters to do the other half of the work: care for the people involved.

These volunteers are extremely special people. Most of us are good at caring for our family and friends; very few of us are good at caring for strangers in 10 degree temperatures at 2:00 in the morning. But still Red Cross volunteers are there. We were there this week. Our volunteers are dedicated middle of the night risers, unstoppable on ice and determined to provide relief. We will see our region through the winter months, no matter how cold it gets

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Below is a video of a separate fire response, this one Friday evening 1/25/13 in N. Wales, Montgomery County. It further underscores the point made above.

Almost three weeks ago Superstorm Sandy roared ashore and devastated vast parts of our region. She destroyed the homes of tens of thousands of people, disrupting and/or inconveniencing the lives of millions of others. I’ve wanted to write about this for more than a week, but whenever I set aside time to do it, something more pressing always came up.

American Red Cross Southeastern PA staff at the scene of a massive fire in the Rockaways section of Queens. The fire was a direct result of Superstorm Sandy.

For starters, I have mixed feelings about the result of Sandy. On the one hand, I feel eternally lucky that my home was spared any damage. I didn’t even lose power. Most of my friends were also spared. My brother and his family in north Jersey had no power for more than a week, but otherwise were fine. I am also grateful the Philadelphia area largely dodged a bullet. Yes many people had damage to their homes and cars, and tens of thousands lost power, but relatively speaking, Philadelphia and its immediate area avoided a catastrophe.

That’s obviously not the case with our friends and neighbors to the east and north. This is why I’m conflicted. I feel terrible about what has happened along the Jersey shore and New York. It’s awful. Basically, I’m glad it didn’t happen here, but heartbroken it happened there.

American Red Cross Southeastern PA staffers stop at this home in the Rockaways section of Queens during a tour of just some of the damage. This home in many ways is symbolic of the damage Sandy inflicted.

No matter the conflicted feelings I have about Sandy’s destruction, however, one thing I am not conflicted about is my pride in the Red Cross. No non-governmental or military organization can do what the Red Cross does on the scale it does it, as efficiently and effectively as the Red Cross. NOT ONE. Sure things haven’t been perfect, but the Red Cross is fulfilling its promise and its mission to alleviate human suffering. We are providing emergency relief to tens of thousands of people every day. There is no disputing that.

Here at the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania, we spent days preparing for a calamity. We dedicated enormous time and resources trying to educate the public about how to prepare and what to do. We positioned volunteers, supplies, etc. across the region. We sheltered more than 600 people before, during, and after Sandy hit in our area alone. Several shelters were open for a week for people who lost power.  We also  provided shelter for pets, thanks to a partnership with the area’s County Animal Rescue Teams (video below). This prevented people from having to make the awful choice between staying behind and potentially be in danger or leaving their pets behind.

We even set up in a matter of hours a mega shelter with the potential to hold 1,300 evacuees from New York, New Jersey, and West Virginia.  We provided supplies to help the hardest hit areas of our region clean up and rebuild. 

Once the danger passed in our region, we stepped up our efforts to help New York and New Jersey. Southeastern PA American Red Cross Chief Operating Officer, Clifton Salas is one of the leaders of the entire NY Sandy relief operation.

American Red Cross Southeastern PA spent thousands of dollars on food on its way to New Jersey to deliver food and supplies to hundreds of people.

American Red Cross Southeastern PA staffers hand out food and supplies to hundreds of people at a Rite Aid in a hard hit area of Jersey City, NJ

Southeastern PA has sent (and will continue to send) dozens of volunteers for several week deployments to help with things like food and supply distribution and mental health counseling. In addition to that, we send dozens of volunteers for day-long and weekend trips to NY and NJ. Many drive the big trucks that distribute food and supplies. Others literally walk door to door in hard hit neighborhoods (video below).

While the Red Cross is the best equipped non-governmental agency to handle a massive crisis like Sandy, the Red Cross knows it cannot do it alone. The Red Cross cannot be all things to all people and cannot be everywhere all the time. So we lined up dozens of partners to assist with food distribution, sheltering, and relief supplies. We also had partners provide services that the Red Cross doesn’t typically offer.

There will be always be critics. The Red Cross is not and should not be above criticism. But any criticism that attacks the effort and will of the Red Cross and its volunteers and staff nationwide, is entirely misguided. The dedication and commitment of a Red Crosser is unparalleled. Period. End of story. There are bound to be missteps during a relief operation the size and scope of Sandy. Perfection, though, is not the goal because the Red Cross does not set unattainable goals. Success is the goal. And by any measure the Red Cross response to his point has been a success. And the ongoing support the Red Cross is receiving is a remarkable reflection of that.

I love my job. I love the feeling I have knowing I work for an organization dedicated to helping people. But I won’t lie; there have been plenty of days when I couldn’t wait to get home. I couldn’t wait for this to be over. I couldn’t wait for my phone to stop ringing and my email to stop buzzing.  And I wasn’t even in NY or NJ.

Just like with any job, there are frustrations, politics, and silly rules; days when it feels “like just a job.” But in the midst of a disaster, those things ultimately don’t matter.  You jump into action. You do what needs to be done. You hope you’re doing some good and helping people.

Now I can confidently say that I’m no longer hoping. I know for sure that I am.

(Below, compilation of news clips summarizing American Red Cross Southeastern PA preparations for and response to Sandy.)

I never need convincing that Red Cross volunteers are the salt of the earth. I know that already. I don’t need to be at an event to know how dedicated and committed Red Cross volunteers are. But there is just something about our annual Celebration of Volunteers event that makes what they do individually and collectively awe inspiring. No matter how much you already appreciate them, this event makes you appreciate them even more.

More than 400 American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania volunteers were on hand for the 10th anniversary of the event. It honors all Red Cross SEPA volunteers and the amazing work they do each year for disaster survivors in the Philadelphia region and across  the country.

I know many of the volunteers personally. I’ve met them at disaster scenes or various functions. They all have their own reasons for volunteering. Each brings their own skill sets and strengths. Just like any job.Noel for example, received our Disaster Action Team Captain of the Year. He was so deserving and got a rousing cheer when his name was announced. He’s very unassuming and upon first meeting him, you’d never figure him for a take charge, DAT captain. But he owns his own company that does computer techy stuff I’ll never understand. He is a leader by any definition. And we are lucky to have him. There’s Jen, who is not only a Philadelphia firefighter full-time and Red Cross volunteer, but she also runs Red Paw, a non-profit that takes care of pets temporarily following a disaster so families can focus on their recovery. She showed up to the event in a sling because one of the dogs in her care bit her arm and the injury was so bad she required surgery. But that has not deterred her. I was tweeting back and forth with her a few days ago as she was responding to a disaster. I didn’t know about the attack. She was already back at it just days after the attack. She’s a better person than I am. There’s Sarah Shabaglian. I had never met her. She’s no longer technically a volunteer. But at 93 years old, she was being honored for her service to the Red Cross and our Armed Forces. She served in World War II in Italy and Okinawa helping our GIs and their spouses get back to the U.S. She was decked out in her full Red Cross military uniform. What an amazing moment that was for the entire room.

Noel with his Disaster Action Team Captain of the Year award at our Celebration of Volunteers event. Pictured with SEPA’s Volunteer Chair, Chairman of the Board and 6ABC’s Alicia Vitarelli

Jen with her special partnership award for her work with the Red Cross on behalf of Red Paw. Pictured with SEPA Chair of Volunteers, Chairman of the Board, and 6ABC’s Alicia Vitarelli

Sarah (Sally) Shabaglian received a special Services to the Armed Forces legacy award for her work on behalf of the Red Cross during World War II

I could give you example after example of volunteers with amazing stories. These were just three. The volunteers don’t do what they do to get awards and recognition. Many don’t even want it. But to me this event is  about more than just recognition. It’s a way for all the volunteers to enjoy each other outside of a moment of disaster. A chance for them to reconnect or meet for the very first time. The Red Cross is a family after all. Sometimes dysfunctional, but always caring, always looking out for each other and those we serve.

One thing I am always struck by when I meet a volunteer for the first time and tell them what I do. They almost always respond by saying, “I’m just a volunteer.” I always try to nicely correct them. I am the one who should be saying “I’m just an employee.” I get paid to serve the Red Cross. I get paid to serve those who have been through a disaster. They do this because they love the Red Cross, they love the mission, they love helping.

Our CEO really struck a chord with me during her remarks at the event when she said the volunteers are the reason she gets up and goes to work in the morning.

“I don’t like asking for things,” she said. “But asking for things is my job. And I do it because of you. You and your work make me want to ask for things.”

That’s pretty powerful. And it hits home with me because the Celebration of Volunteers is a lot of work. Both in the planning and execution. A lot goes on behind the scenes. A lot. It’s hard. It’s time consuming. It’s comparable to Red Ball, at least when it comes to my role. But the people in the room that night deserve it. My effort pales in comparison to theirs. They make it worth getting up in the morning on days you’d rather not.

So on this day after the Celebration of Volunteers, we are already thinking about ways to make next year’s event even better and ways to improve the entire volunteer experience in general.

So if you’re looking for a place where your volunteerism is needed and appreciated. Where your efforts have a direct impact on lives that you can see. Where you’re part of a small local and large global family consider the Red Cross. Consider being the reason why others go to work in the morning.

Video highlighting volunteer deployments (4 minutes)

Mission Moment from Celebration of Volunteers featuring the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (1 min 15 sec)

8/31/12
Hancock County, Kiln, MS

Americorp and Red Cross volunteers man a modern emergency shelter for displaced victims of hurricane Issac. As the flood waters recede back to the overflowed branches and creeks, shelter residents have been returning to their homes to pick up their daily routines. Americorp volunteers Kirstin Heininger, and Lauren Watson along with Red Cross volunteer Samuel Allen and Mike Mahn dismantle sleeping quarters and prepare equipment for storage.

This shelter won’t close until the last displaced person has been able to find alternative living arrangements. When that happens most likely the Americorp and Red Cross volunteers will move on to support shelter efforts in other flood impacted areas.

-Emery Graham
AmeriCorps