Thursday, April 17, 2014

#TBT | The Gray Ladies

The recent meeting between the original six World War II "Rosie the Riveters" and President Obama and Vice President Biden - as well as our recent celebration of National Volunteer Week - got us thinking about the women who served in the Red Cross during those first two World Wars.

That's when we came across the Gray Ladies. This group, mostly comprised of women, went through rigorous training to provide non-medical care to patients in military hospitals. They acted as hostesses and provided recreational services to patients, many of whom were injured during World War I. 

By the 1930s, the Gray Lady Service spread to other hospitals around the country, both military and civilian. Their services also expanded to include blood centers and providing assistance with disaster response. During World War II, the service reached its peak with almost 50,000 women serving as Gray Ladies in military and other hospitals throughout the U.S. Following the war, some Gray Ladies even served in U.S. military hospitals overseas. While the number of Gray Ladies decreased after the war, these women continued serving in American hospitals until the mid-1960s when the Red Cross shifted to a unified concept of volunteers. 

Our archives are full of pictures and news articles about these extraordinary volunteers. In this November 1955 article from the Daily Sun of Arlington, VA, local Gray Ladies are featured during the presentation of their service caps, pins, and certificates. These volunteers served at the Fort Meyer Dispensary, on the Bloodmobile, and at the Arlington Chapter House. 

For more information about these amazing women, check out this Red Cross retrospective

Monday, April 14, 2014

Living Like a Refugee

The Global Refugee Simulation and Conference

By Dana Ayers, Volunteer Contributor 

A few weeks ago I learned that the Red Cross was creating the largest refugee simulation in history in Bull Run park in Virginia. I knew I had to go check it out. 

I was aware that Red Cross strives to educate civilians about international humanitarian law (IHL) through efforts like Raid Cross, so to hear about a full-scale exercise to hammer these issues home was intriguing. 

As I started learning more about the simulations, it became clear that this was a massive undertaking. More than 500 people were expected to attend the 6+ hour event (it ended up being more like 13+ hours for some of the committed volunteers). Students, volunteers, Red Cross personnel, Marines, Special Forces, humanitarian NGOs, local industry - all were involved to support this.

The purpose? To simulate what it's like in real life for those who are forced to leave their homes due to conflict. One Red Cross volunteer, Sue, explained that the simulation would expose participants to every aspect of humanitarian law and refugee crises. "Maybe they are doctors, or lawyers, or ditch-diggers - but they've all lost something," she explained, referring to the reality of displaced populations. 

The base camp was already set up when I arrived, but no refugees had yet made it through their journey to the camp. The "refugees" were brought by bus from DC and dropped off in waves at the park. They were given back stories, with details such as how many were in their family, what ethnicity and religion they were, and why they were fleeing their country. The country in conflict was referred to as "Quinta" in the scenario, while the country across the border - which held the refugee camp - was referred to as "Renimar."

The back story of the citizens from Quinta included the fact that many of them would be discriminated against for their gender, ethnicity, or religion. Some were given 5 pound flour sack "babies" to carry along the journey, while others would "have" new babies inside the camp. Some would lose family members along the way, others would lose possessions while being robbed by rebel forces on the border. All would lose some part of their dignity - represented by two red coins - before the day was over. It was all based on true realities of conflict and displacement. 

I decided to leave the camp and trek out into the woods to follow one of the waves of refugees on their journey. Once they arrived, the wave had to go through simulated minefields - complete with trip wire and smoke bombs, not to mention live gunfire going off at the Bull Run shooting range next door for added realism. The group then worked their way through a disorienting forested area, which is where I caught up to them. They were lost, and it was raining. This, again, added to the realism of the simulation.

Eventually, they found their path and about 15 minutes later, finally reached a set of vendor stalls selling foof and other items. The refugees began to barter for goods to keep them going. It was there that they were approached by fake members of the media, who asked them to tell their stories. Again, a realistic experience for these wearing, displaced citizens.

I asked one of the vendors - a local college student - about her experience so far. She told me she had learned so much already that day, and she noted that the nasty weather made her all the more empathetic to those who really go through this type of crisis. 

Shortly after leaving the vendors, the wave of refugees I was following was seized upon by rebel forces in Quinta. A group of volunteers - led by real-life Special Forces personnel - began yelling at the group and brandishing weapons. The group was told to form a line and give up their money, food, and, at times, their dignity - a reminder of the horrors that refugees actually face when trying to escape. 

I asked one of the active-duty Marines helping with the simulation why he got involved. "I did a humanitarian mission in '05 and I've been deployed to Third World countries. I just wanted to see a different side of this and facilitate the Red Cross putting the participants through the exercise," he explained. His team's efforts definitely made the simulation more memorable for the participants!

After the rebels eventually let the group go, the refugees finally made it to the border of Renimar. But, here again, they were roughly approached - this time by border patrol soldiers who were speaking a foreign language. The simulation used French-speaking international students and volunteers in military uniforms to create realism. There was even a border patrol K9 played by real-life Iraq war-deployed military dog "Junior."

At the border, the refugees were harassed, questioned for IDs, yelled at in a language they didn't understand, and often separated from their families and detained while their intentions were questioned. Here, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stepped in - as they would in real life - to ensure everyone complied with the Geneva Conventions. As I stood in line behind the group attempting to make it through, I overheard the participants assuring each other of things they had learned. "Remember, they can only touch you on the shoulders..." Clearly, this event was hammering home some humanitarian law education. 

Once the refugees finally made it through the border, they entered the open field where the camp was waiting. There, they were to go through the real life steps of joining a camp. First, they were to head to the registration tent where they were questioned again on their background. From there they could receive medical attention at the first aid tent, receive food rations at the market, receive supplies to build their own tent, and report missing family members to the "restoring family links" office.

I started asking some of the participants inside the camp about why they did this simulation. One local George Washington University student told me she was going to Jordan this summer to work with refugees from Syria. The simulation was a way for her to better understand what they've gone through. 

Another student I encountered, Juliette, is a peace and conflict resolution major at American University. "This was everything I thought it would be, which is good and bad," she told me. She went on to explain that how the displacement experience is such a big journey. "Crossing the border was so dangerous in itself, but here it's still dangerous," she said, referring to the camp and how pandemic diseases could easily break out in a group so large, all living in close quarters. 

I learned that at the end of the day, the participants would be able to talk about their experiences with IHL experts, Red Cross staff, and mental health experts - as well as discuss things such as the ethics of covering news in a conflict zone. All very important, considering several of the participants will likely end up in careers focused on humanitarian assistance. 

Beside those who have interest in future work, there were also participants who are already working in teh field who took part in the simulation because they will soon deploy to real life conflict zones. Some merely found out about the simulation through their Friends' Facebook pages and came just to check things out. Regardless of why they showed up, there's no doubt that everyone walked away from the day with a deeper appreciation of the plight of displaced citizens and the need for humanitarian aid. I know I did.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Celebrating You

Part V: National Volunteer Week

By Teri McCormick Hinton, Volunteer Engagement Director

It turns out that April is a very celebrated month. Besides National Volunteer Month, it is also the month of humor, keeping America beautiful, lawns and gardens, poetry, pecans, welding, and records and information! It's even a month to be aware of stress!

I digress - we're here to talk about volunteers and how much we love them. Following on the heels of March when we celebrated Red Cross Month, April gives us the opportunity (and responsibility) to honestly and respectfully acknowledge all of our volunteers in the national capital region. Perhaps you have received a thank you note in the mail from our team, or gotten a goody bag at a recent meeting, or were thanks personally by someone for the time and talent you bring to the work of the Red Cross. I certainly hope so. Clearly you are a necessary part of the network of people who represent the Red Cross to our community. You deserve to be thanked and acknowledged. Please let me add my thanks here as well and invite your feedback and support to improve and refine our volunteer programs. 

Because of the work of our volunteers, we have a community that is remarkably well-served by the American Red Cross. Maybe these numbers will astound you as much as they have surprised me. 

  • Today, we have 2,425 volunteers doing the work of the Red Cross in our region.
  • In the first 10 days of April, 125 new volunteers submitted an application.
  • 733 people are in our region are disaster responders, trained to respond to single family fires and much larger events as needed.
  • An additional 253 corporate volunteers stand ready to respond to shelter needs should a large disaster strike. 
  • 490 volunteers speak a second language, including Afrikaans, Albanian, American Sign Language, Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Creole, Croatian, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Mandarin, Nigerian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Sinhalese, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Yoruba. 
  • 111 volunteers in our region work at blood drives that occur 7 days a week. 
  • Nearly 30,000 people a year receive preparedness materials through outreach volunteers. Red Cross volunteers respond to about 400 family fires around our region every year. 
Red Cross volunteers respond to about 400 family fires around our region every year. Red Cross volunteers teach children how to swim. They serve meals to those affected by a disaster and shelter families after their homes are damaged or destroyed. Our volunteers were at Hurricane Sandy and support the collection and storage of safe blood that saves lives every day. They teach CPR so that when we are home with our loved ones, where most heart attacks occur, we can respond quickly. 

It's impossible to assess the real impact that each volunteer has in the work of the Red Cross. But we know one thing very well - the Red Cross does what it does because of volunteers. Period. What you are doing is visible in the community every day and this month we stop long enough to say thanks. 

April is a month to celebrate a lot of things. But mostly, it's a month to celebrate you. Thanks from the bottom of our hearts! 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Part IV: National Volunteer Week 

By Patrick Pannett, Disaster Public Affairs Volunteer

The images of Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 inspired me to do something to give back to the community. I collected goods and donated items for the victims of the hurricane, but that somehow didn't seem to be enough. It so happened I was serving as a reference for a friend who was under consideration for a deployment to New Orleans with the American Red Cross, and I used that opportunity to express my own interest in working with the organization. 

I ended up not being deployed for Katrina, but used the basic courses as a springboard for getting involved with the Alexandria chapter as a volunteer public affairs member. I was first deployed as a disaster volunteer to the Southern California wildfires in 2007 where I served in a number of roles but really fell neatly into public affairs, which led to me being invited to join the national Advanced Public Affairs Team (APAT). 

The Red Cross offered me the most rewarding volunteer experience to date, especially as I see how we respond in every community each day, be it from offering a friendly conversation to those affected by disaster to helping solve complex challenges on the fly. Locally, in the National Capital Region, I am privileged to work with incredibly committed staff and volunteers, including for such large events as the annual July 4 celebrations and the Presidential Inauguration every 4 years. These are great examples of the Red Cross in the community. 

Sometimes volunteering comes closer to home, like it did during the Navy Yard shootings in 20132 - less than a mile from my home. I was able to be there and help in the immediate aftermath. That's something that really resonated with me - that the Red Cross is local, at some level, and we are all neighbors helping each other.

Volunteering is both incredibly rewarding and professionally valuable. It informs my experiences, gives me a very diverse insight into the many communities that make up America, and the experiences cross over to my day job. I believe everyone should give back in one way or another, especially those of use who are fortunate to have not yet needed assistance from others. Organizations like the Red Cross offer a wide-array of ways to give back - be it your time, blood, or financial assistance. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

If You Can Evolve to That Place

Part III: National Volunteer Week

By Carey Angel II, Volunteer Services Volunteer

Consider yourself blessed if you can evolve to a place where others truly matter.  I don’t mean the kind of consideration where you expect something, however small, in return.  You may not even realize your true motives.  Not everyone gets there. I would imagine most fall short; after all we are brought up to think of self- first.  It may not even be your own doing.  For me it took a life event, the diagnosis of Lupus, to change my life.

Lupus is one of many disorders of the immune system. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system turns against parts of the body it is designed to protect. Who gets lupus and why? Why me? Why not me? 

At present, there is no cure for Lupus. However, it can be effectively treated with medication and most people with the disease lead active, healthy lives. Lupus is characterized by periods of illness, called flares, and periods of wellness, or remission. Understanding how to prevent flares and how to treat them when they do occur helps people with lupus maintain better health.  Either way, it has continued to impact my life having a profound effect on my mental and emotional well-being. 

With these types of diseases, you're likely to have felt emotions such as grief, fear, anxiety, and depression. I even had to give up driving because of possible seizures. As I continue to work toward reentering the work force what I did to heal was to volunteer with both the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region and the Lupus Foundation of America. 

Volunteering helped me cope with uncertainty about the future in general. Having a chronic, unpredictable disease can cause uncertainty and anxiety. You may wonder how the disease will progress, whether you'll be able to stay independent, or how you will manage physically and financially. Having a chronic illness like Lupus may make it difficult to take care of your home or family the way you would like to or feel you should. Volunteering proves self-worth. It shows that there is a bright tomorrow still out there for you. 

Don’t get me wrong - sometimes I wish life were easier. But I never would have learned to love others or my community so sincerely had not gone through what I went through.  In addition, volunteering has helped me realize my place in that community and, above all, how to truly serve others by first dealing with what comes along for you and your spiritual growth. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why I Volunteer

Part II: National Volunteer Week 

By BJ McDuffie, Disaster Action Team Volunteer

My volunteer story started in Iowa. When I heard about the earthquake in Haiti in January of 2010, I had just returned to the United States to finish my Master’s Thesis after three years in Paris, France. Since I was job searching and had French language skills, I figured I might be able to help with recovery efforts if they needed more volunteers. 

The first step in the process was to take the volunteer training course, which in Iowa City, where I lived, was called Disaster University. Seeing the opportunity to help out in my community as well as internationally, I recruited my parents to attend the courses with me, since my mom works in the mental health field and my step dad is a member of the county HazMat team.

Shortly after completing the coursework, I got a job in Washington, DC working for an international nonprofit. I was excited for the move and was glad that I could transfer my chapter affiliation to DC—I would be able to jump right in to the DC Disaster Action Team and start going out on calls in my new town right away. By participating in the team when I arrived, I was able to meet new people outside of work and to have a direct impact on the greater community in a small way that I otherwise wouldn't have had. The importance of getting outside of my neighborhood and to be there to comfort my fellow Washingtonians in their times of need was something that I didn't necessarily understand the impact of until I started going out on calls. It’s made me realize how despite the many differences between folks, be it ethnic, racial, or socio-economic, when you’re standing with a family in front of their fire-damaged home in the middle of the night, the comfort we seek to provide is the same.

Volunteering with the Red Cross has made me more aware of my own corner of the world in a more purposeful way. Much of my career has focused on international development, but there are so many things to be done on the home front too. I appreciate my community and feel more connected to it on a deeper level as I strive to live up to the core values and principles of the Red Cross mission. By approaching those I meet with these principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality in the back of my mind, I have more valuable interactions with people I meet.

During Hurricane Sandy when I was on my 5th call of the night with an exhausted team under my guidance, we pressed on with humor and purpose - we would continue serving clients until the calls stopped coming. Sleep could wait another day. It was what we were trained to do.

When I look into someone’s eyes after they have lost everything after a fire and I can give them a hug and take them somewhere warm to begin planning next steps for the future, I am reminded of why I volunteer. I volunteer because I know that I would want someone to be there for me and my loved ones if I was in their place. The beauty of the Red Cross for me is that we are all community members helping each other -  neighbors helping neighbors, across all walks of life. It’s tough work, but in the end it’s worth it. The community of volunteers I’m lucky to be a part of are truly special people.    

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Paid in Hugs

Part I: National Volunteer Week 

By Renee Killian, Disaster Action Team Volunteer

I began volunteering, unofficially, with the Red Cross in 2006. I had met my husband, Brian, after he returned home from his 6-month volunteer post with the Hurricane Katrina operation. He began volunteering with logistics in Richmond, VA, and I started to volunteer 2 days a week on my days off. 

After a year of dating, Brian and I were married on August 16, 2007. Because of our love and connection with the Red Cross, instead of wedding rings we chose to get matching tattoos - of the American Red Cross. 

Brian later passed away on November 17, 2007.

In February of 2013 I was released from a 5-year employment contract. I took some time to vacation, organize, and do some simple life reflection. I started to think about Brian and the Red Cross. It dawned on me that I was missing something in my life and I wanted to connect with Brian in some way for our upcoming anniversary on August 16th. That's when my tattoo flashed at me. As I cried over missing Brian, I decided to contact the Red Cross.

I became a trainee on the DC Disaster Action Team (DAT), took every course required and others that were available. Advancement to a DC DAT team member came quickly and soon after I became a Senior Response Leader. During this time, I heard about an internship in the Disaster Services office. I thought no one would hire a 46-year-old to be an intern. But, I was wrong and I've been an intern by day and a response leader by night. What a rush! 

During my time working with the DC DAT I've learned that volunteers are the arteries of our organization. Without them we would be nothing. It takes a special kind of person to take time out of their own lives just to make sure others can continue in theirs. And only volunteers know how it feels to get paid in a hug! 

Editor's Note: Renee was featured in a recent NPR interview. You can read or listen to the full interview here