Thursday, December 6, 2018

My Red Cross Story: Rainier Gordon

By Rose Ellen O'Connor, Volunteer

It seemed like a bad dream. Rainier Gordon was having the worst day of his life. Something was off kilter. As a Red Cross volunteer, he’s used to putting together kits and other items to help the victims of all kinds of tragedies at the organization’s logistics center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He also goes to emergency shelters to comfort the victims of house fires.

Now he was the one receiving help.

On a quiet October morning, his house on Mary Catherine Drive in Clinton, Maryland, erupted in flames. His wife sent him an email telling him the bad news and he called her back.

“She said come quickly,” Rainier recalls. “The house is on fire.”

He lives in the house with wife, father-in-law and brother-in-law.

Fortunately, no one was home and no one was injured when the fire broke out in the concrete, 6,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom house. It apparently started in the walls behind the stove, microwave and refrigerator. There was a power outage before he left for work, and Rainier believes when the power came back on mid-morning, it caused a surge of electricity, which triggered the fire.

Flames swept through the kitchen, dining room and living room, destroying the roof and gutting two bedrooms. The other bedrooms received smoke and water damage.

When Rainier got to his home, he wasn’t allowed to go in and was frantic to see how much damage had been done. He held it together, he said, to be strong for the rest of the family.

“It was a lot to take in. At first, I was relieved because my wife had told me the house was gone. I wasn’t expecting to see anything when I got there.” Rainier says. “But then I was anxious to find out what the damage was. You’re in a state of just trying to figure out what’s on the other side of the walls."

“But then you’ve got to take control and make sure your family feels secure,” Rainier says. “They can look to you for strength.”

Standing outside the house, he worried that they would lose priceless photographs and mementos that filled their house. While serving oversees in the Army, Rainier acted as the U.S. delegate to NATO for 10 years and also as the U.S. representative to ABCANZ (the American, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand Armies Program). He traveled extensively and says he was in a different part of the world every six months, and collected potteries, rugs, furniture and other treasures. (He’s now retired and works as a civilian at the Pentagon.)

When he got in the house, he discovered he’d lost a few photos but that many of the other keepsakes could be restored. He wasn’t upset about what they lost, except for the photos, he says, because he had a different attitude after his experience with a fire. He saw a lot of his belongings as clutter.

He called his boss at the Red Cross when he arrived and his boss told him he already knew about the fire and that Red Cross volunteers were on their way. They arrived about a half hour later.

He had a new understanding of what Red Cross volunteers do for victims of house fires. They helped the family think clearly. First, they gave them pamphlets that told them everything they needed to do after a house fire, such as who to call to shut off utilities. Then they gave them a credit card to pay for food, and comfort bags filled with toiletries. A checklist of things they might need was very centering, Rainier says. He learned to rely on others for help.

“What I learned is you like to be strong but when you’ve been through something like a fire, it’s best to be a victim because you are a victim,” Rainier says. “And the reason I say that is because people come to help and if you act like you don’t need any help, people leave and when they’re gone you realize, man, I could have really used this or this or this.”

Rainier says he’s gained perspective and wants to start putting it to use by volunteering at house fires.

“When you’re a Red Cross volunteer and you talk to folks, you can only talk from one side because they’re the victims and you’re the ones giving help. By me now being the victim, I’m able to see both sides of it.” He’s ultra-sensitive to how to talk to victims, he says. You need the right balance between offering advice and being a good listener.

“Not that I wanted my house to burn down,” Rainier says, “but I’m thankful now I can talk to persons from both sides.”

Monday, November 26, 2018

My Red Cross Story: Ken Jones

By Ian Levine, Volunteer

I shouldn’t be telling you this. But in the late 1980s, I lived a life punctuated by the staccato of flying bullets and shrapnel. I used to be Frank Woods, Master Sergeant of the United States Marine Corps. My mission was simple: kill Raul Menendez. Raul was the leader of a terrorist network hell-bent on wiping out 99% of the world's population.

That’s the plot to one of the most popular video games of all time, named Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Retired Army Specialist Tim Senkowski immersed himself in it as a sort of therapy. Tim (and soldiers like him) valued their video games so much that after getting wounded, their first question would be, “Do I still have my hands?” And their second question would be whether their reproductive systems were still intact. So, when Tim gnarled his dominant hand and lost both of his legs, he didn’t know what to do. His mother took him to a Super bowl party, where he met American Red Cross volunteer, Ken Jones.

Ken was an engineer who specialized in adaptive technology for the military. As a teen, he tinkered with radar jammers. But he evolved to customized weaponry for the United States Department of Defense. Although Ken had grown up around the military, he hadn't spoken with a soldier like Tim. Little did Ken know, their talk would alter the status quo for injured soldiers worldwide.

Months earlier, Tim's squadron was dwindling, so it partnered with a special forces group. While the soldiers were advancing, Tim stepped on a landmine. It blew off his legs above the knees, marred his hand, and scarred his back. He returned stateside not being able to do the one thing he needed to do the most. Tim laid in bed, staring at the ceiling. And he would think about his missing limbs instead of capturing Menendez.

It sickened Ken how injured soldiers weren't treated right. He said, "They should be getting $27 million to stay at home with a hangnail like baseball players." He even stopped watching sports because of the disconnect. Ken said, "We need to find a way to keep these war fighters engaged."

After meeting Tim, Ken bought a video game controller and took it apart. He figured out how to customize it for injured soldiers. His mission to help people like Tim led to founding the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged. Warfighter Engaged is a volunteer organization which customizes free devices that improve disabled soldiers' lives.

Devices such as the controller built for John Peck, a disabled Army Marine Sergeant. Sergeant Peck was missing his hands and feet, but he yearned to enjoy his PlayStation 3 again. Ken created a controller for Sergeant Peck, which he used until the day of his limb transplant. Then, Warfighter Engaged took off.

Warfighter Engaged entered a contest run by Microsoft. They called the contest a 'hackathon', a portmanteau of hacking and marathon. Microsoft would offer financial backing as an award for the best idea. Warfighter Engaged won with its universal controller. (Up until that point, there was no such thing as a one-size-fits-all controller because everyone’s injuries were different). The controller offered many ports, each one able to connect to different adaptive technologies.

Ken's involvement with Red Cross changed the way disabled gamers played. Warfighter Engaged and Red Cross are aligned in its missions to help members of the military and their families deal with the challenges of service. Now, because of Red Cross and its volunteers, disabled gamers are leveling up.

There are over one billion disabled people on Earth; or, a little less than the entire population of China. If you'd like to help Warfighter Engaged continue its mission, please click here. The American Red Cross provides global humanitarian efforts, and 90% of it comes from volunteers like Ken... and you. If you'd like to learn more about how you can help, please click here.

* * *

I dedicate this article to my best friend, Army Chaplain Captain Heather Borshof. Captain Borshof has devoted her life to serving soldiers like Tim. Thank you for your service.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

My Red Cross Story: Joe Rollo

Written by: Rosalind SE Carney, Volunteer

Over a year later, Joe Rollo recalls his Hurricane Harvey disaster relief experience.

Joe Rollo has been a volunteer with the American Red Cross since he retired in 2015. As the former Director for Psychological Services in the Prince George’s County, MD, Police Department, he has extensive experience in emergency response and mental health counseling services. Joe’s primary interest with the Red Cross is volunteering with the Reconnection Workshops that help service members reintegrate into the family dynamic when they return from deployment.

Joe is also trained in disaster relief and deployed to Houston, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Given his background, his role as a volunteer in Houston was to provide psychological support to those affected by Hurricane Harvey, and provide emotional support to other Red Cross volunteers.

In September 2017, Joe arrived at the George Brown Convention Center in Houston, a city where his son and wife’s family lives. For the next ten days, Joe saw the exemplary work of the Houston Police Department, especially considering one of their officers had died as a result of his hurricane relief efforts.

3rd from the right: Joe Rollo
Joe describes how many of the people who sought refuge at the Convention Center shelter were not displaced from their homes – they were homeless. He noted that people in the shelter were remarkably cooperative despite the challenging conditions; there was a sense of appreciation between people. The children who were displaced from their homes or who were homeless were particularly resilient. In fact, the children seemed more adaptable than their parents, perhaps as they did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation.

Out of those unfortunate conditions, some positive events occurred.

Many homeless people were veterans, including a group of six Vietnam veterans. While under the care of the Red Cross, homeless people received regular meals and medical checkups they would otherwise not have had. Importantly, the veterans received information regarding specific Red Cross services available to them of which they were unaware. Two of the homeless Vietnam veterans reconnected with their children, who had been displaced from their homes by Hurricane Harvey.

A number of National Guard members who helped at the Center had previously been deployed to Iran and Afghanistan. A fraternity developed between the veterans and the younger members of the military. A spirit of working together also formed between the Red Cross volunteers, the Southern Baptists who provided food, and an Islamic group that works nationally with flood victims.

From the experience in Houston, Joe gained an increased sense of trust, compassion, and gratitude. He had lost colleagues in both the law enforcement and the military, and the Red Cross has helped him to find another family.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

My Salute to Service Story: Tiffany Circle Honoree, Michelle Howard

By Rose Ellen O'Connor, Volunteer

It’s the largest fundraising event of the year for the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region. This Salute to Service Gala is attended by over 600 military, government, corporate and community leaders every year and the money raised is transformed into the services delivered every day in our community by the Red Cross. We hope you will join us for an inspirational evening on Saturday, November 10 at the Hilton McClean Tysons Corner.

Admiral Michelle Howard, who retired December 1st, will be feted as the distinguished woman warrior honoree by the local Tiffany Circle. The Tiffany Circle is a society of women leaders and philanthropists who donate $10,000 annually to the American Red Cross, and who each year nominate a deserving woman for this award. Each of the women follow in the footsteps of a long line of women leaders who have helped the Red Cross serve the American public in times of war and peace with disaster assistance, blood collection, safety training, support to the military and other community assistance services. The award is given to an active duty or retired service woman who best exemplifies the traits of leadership, strength and service.

Admiral Howard was the first woman to retire as a four-star admiral, the highest rank of that post. With the accomplishments of first African-American woman to command a Navy ship, leader of tsunami relief efforts, and vice chief of naval operations destined to become part of her resume, Admiral Howard never dreamed she’d become a four-star admiral when she was graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1982. It had only opened to women in 1975.

“You have to consider the context of the times,” she says, noting that she was at the academy from 1972 to 1978, and the first woman one-star admiral was commissioned in 1972. By 1978, there were two more. “I don’t think any woman would have had a dream or an expectation that she would go beyond the rank of two-star because it hadn’t happened yet,” she says.

Just five years after graduating from the academy, in May 1987 while serving aboard the USS Lexington, she received the Navy/Navy League Captain Winifred Collins award. It is given once a year to a woman officer for outstanding leadership.

Admiral Howard became the first African-American woman to command a ship in the Navy on March 12, 1999, when she took command of the USS Rushmore. It was just one year after she had graduated from the Army’s Command and General Staff College with a master’s in military arts and sciences.

“I would say the biggest thing was that when I took command I got a lot more media than my mail counterparts because of the significance of the event,” she says. “There were many different reporters who were there to witness it and who wanted to interview me.”

She was the commander of Amphibious Squadron 7 from May 2004 to September 2005. Her ship was headed to the Middle East when it was rerouted to Indonesia for tsunami relief efforts
“It was almost overwhelming,” she says. “The debris that consisted of what was left of life: human beings, pets, buildings, furniture, toys piled up to the second-story level of many buildings that looked like they’d been bombed out. The survivors of all that were in these huge camps and the most immediate need was getting them food and clean water. So, working with the Indonesian army, we just organized ourselves and started pushing as much relief support as we could. We just worked around the clock.”

Her shore assignments included senior military assistant to the Navy Secretary, deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, and the 38th vice chief of naval operations.
Admiral Howard first became interested in the military when she watched a documentary on service academies as a young girl. Luckily, the academy opened up to women when she was a teenager and she zeroed in on the Naval Academy. She says she’s honored to be celebrated by a component of the American Red Cross, which does so much for the military.

“Well, it was certainly unexpected,” she says. “The Red Cross has always been a tremendous supporter of the Armed Forces. For the Navy, they’re just fantastic to provide emergency communications for our sailors. When there’s something going on in the family, they make sure that word gets through to the sailor. And so, at this point in my life, to be recognized by them is quite an honor.”

Others who will be honored at the Salute to Service include:

  • Lifetime of Service Award: David Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman, The Carlyle Group
  • Corporate Hero Award: Amazon, accepted by Teresa Carlson, Vice President, Worldwide Public Sector, Amazon Web Services
  • Community Partner Award: AvalonBay Communities, Inc., accepted by Sean Breslin, Chief Operating Officer, AvalonBay Communities, Inc.

For more information on the Salute to Service and for tickets, visit 

Thank you to our sponsors:
Presenting Sponsors: Amazon Web Services and AvalonBay Communities, Inc.

Lifetime of Service Award Sponsor: GTT Communications, Inc.

Tiffany Circle Distinguished Woman Warrior Award Sponsor: Cassaday & Company, Inc.

Platinum Sponsors: Emergent BioSolutions, Holland & Knight LLP, OptumServe, Pepco - An Exelon Company

Valet Sponsor: Pyramid Systems, Inc.

Heroes Sponsors: Ernst & Young, Hilton Worldwide, The J. Willard & Alice S. Marriott Foundation; STG International, Inc.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Your Ultimate Resource for Halloween Safety

By Ian Seth Levine, Volunteer

For Halloween, I’ve been Mr. Clean, a circus strongman, and Jaws (in a full bodysuit). Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, but it can be stressful, especially if you have children.You want them to be safe, of course. But you don’t have time to consult some of the most respected names in safety.  For example, the Food & Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Or, the American Association of Pediatrics and the National Safety Council. Or, the American Automobile Association, several insurance companies, and The American Red Cross. That’s why I’ve gathered the best tips into one place; and made them easier to read, so you have time for what matters most.


Use non-toxic makeup instead of masks that may limit vision. Test the make up the day before, and look for signs of irritation.

Wear prescription contact lenses, and avoid ones that say you don't need to see a doctor.

Wear tailored, flame-resistant, and reflective costumes with shoes that fit well. Carry accessories (e.g., sword, cane, stick) that only look sharp.

Before Trick-or-Treating

Use party games, such as bobbing for apples, as an opportunity for kids to get in some physical activity. Scrub the apples under cool running water with a produce brush.

Light your pumpkin with a flashlight or glow stick instead of a candle to prevent house fires. Small children should never carve pumpkins. Children can draw a face with markers, then parents can do the cutting.

Remove anything a child could trip over, such as garden hoses, toys, bikes, and lawn decorations. Check outdoor lights and replace burned-out bulbs. Sweep wet leaves or snow from sidewalks and steps. Restrain pets so they don't jump on or bite a trick-or-treater.

During Trick-or-Treating

Carry a new flashlight and place it face down in the treat bucket to free up one hand. Never shine it into the eyes of oncoming drivers.

Stay on sidewalks and avoid walking in streets. If there are no sidewalks, walk on the left side of the road, facing traffic. Look both ways and listen for traffic before crossing the street. Cross streets only at the corner, and never cross between parked vehicles or mid-block.

Inspect treats for signs of tampering: unusual appearance, discoloration, tiny pinholes, or tears. Throw away anything that looks suspicious, and call the police. In case of a food allergy, check the label to ensure the allergen isn’t present. Tell children not to accept anything that isn’t wrapped by a well-known company. Remove any choking hazards.

After Trick-or-Treating

Help prevent your child from getting Type 2 diabetes by playing with them for an hour a day.  Limit sugar-sweetened drinks and juice. Focus on vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Limit screen time with televisions, tablets, and phones. See a dietician, often free through certain grocery chains.

Have a happy and safe Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Red Cross Halloween Safety - Tips and Tricks

By Hailie Duenkel, Volunteer

Halloween was first celebrated by the Celts on the eve of their harvest festival on November 1, approximately 2,000 years ago. A lot has changed since then, and I am sure Snickers and Batman masks were not a part of their celebration. The American Red Cross has some tips and tricks (not to be confused with tricks and treats) to ensure you and your family have a safe and happy evening.

Trick-or-Treater Safety
- Plan trick-or-treating routes to keep track of loved ones while out and about.
- An adult should accompany small children, and older children should travel in groups of four or five.
Twitter: ActuallyNPH 
- Only approach homes with front porch lights on.
- Never go inside to collect candy; only accept treats at the door.
- Walk only on the sidewalks and avoid streets and walking between cars.
- Take a flashlight with you to see and be seen better.
- Be careful around animals who may be out joining in the festivities.

 Welcoming Trick-or-Treaters
- Clear any debris leading from the sidewalk up to the front of your home. 
- Make sure pets are well restrained or not visible to the front door. 
- Turn porch lights on if you intend to welcome trick-or-treaters and make the path well lit.
- If driving, keep an extra close eye on trick-or-treaters crossing the street or walking behind vehicles.
- Inspect candy before passing out to ensure that all wrappers are intact.
- Avoid passing out any handmade treats.


Costumes and Candy Safety
- Make sure trick-or-treaters are clearly visible: bright colors, flashlights, reflective tape, and glow sticks are all good tactics.
- Avoid masks, as they are hard to see in while trick-or-treating near busy streets.
- Hem costumes to an appropriate length to avoiding tripping. This is also extremely important as costumes are often quite flammable and can catch on candles and open fires.
- An adult should check all the gathered candy before eating. (Discard any candy that has open or damaged wrappers, or candy brands you do not recognize.)

Halloween should be a day filled with magic and excitement. Children around the country look forward to planning their costumes throughout the year, and 2019 is no exception. Follow these tips from the Red Cross to ensure this year is the safest and most joyful Halloween night yet!


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

My Red Cross Story: Lily King

By Rose Ellen O'Connor, Volunteer

Lily King needed a social service project (known as a Tzedakah Project) for her Bat Mitzvah. She’d been studying the story of Noah’s Arc and the big flood and that gave her an idea. She would reach out to flood and disaster victims across the country.

She had put together personal-care kits for disaster victims through her Girl Scout troop, but decided to work with the Red Cross this time. Lily, 12, with help from her family, managed to collect donated items to fill 300 “comfort kits,” matching the record for the most collected in a single project.

“It makes me feel wonderful that I can help so many disaster victims and make sure they will have the basic essentials as they are going through a hard time,” Lily says.

Lily started her project at the beginning of 2018 and was finishing up in late September.

“She really wanted to dedicate her time to helping disaster victims since there are so many natural disasters and floods all throughout the U.S., Lily’s mom, Linda, says. “It means a lot to her to be able to work with the Red Cross and help victims.”

Red Cross comfort kits are given out during floods, natural disasters, home fires, you name it. Each kit includes a razor and shaving gel, a toothbrush, travel-size toothpaste, travel-size body wash, travel-size hand lotion, travel/full-size shampoo, travel/full-size deodorant, facial tissues, wash cloths and a small plush toy for a small child or pet.

Lily and her mom, Linda, started out by going to grocery stores to solicit items for the comfort kits, but only a few donated. Lily’s father, Josh, decided to build an Amazon “Wish List” with exactly the items she needed, similar to a bridal or baby shower registry. Like magic, donations quickly poured in through the mail.

“Our friends were so kind and generous to donate to this amazing cause,” Linda says. “We had such an overwhelming response.”

Lily was thrilled.

“I was actually surprised by how much we got because I had heard that 300 comfort kits were the most they’ve ever gotten, so I was really happy when we received so many donations,” Lily says.

The project became a family affair. Her mother, father and brothers Zachary, 10, and Chase, 7, all worked to put the kits together. Even baby brother Brody, 3, chipped in.

“He doesn’t work as fast as us,” Lily says. “He’ll grab something and hand it to us to help us put it in.”

Weekends became a special time when the family worked together on Lily’s project.

“It makes us all feel good,” Lily says. “It was fun to work together as a family to help others.”

Lily and her family live in Rockville, Maryland. In late September, they had just received the last of their donations and were finishing up putting together the kits. Her Bat Mitzvah was this past weekend on Oct. 13 at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. She’ll turn 13 this month and says she would like to volunteer again for the Red Cross when she’s older.

“It sounds like an awesome thing to do,” she says. “And I’ll get to help so many people.”