The hurricanes that ravaged Texas, Florida and the Caribbean this past summer made headlines for several months, drawing the compassion of thousands of generous volunteers and donors. More than 180 American Red Cross volunteers in the Ohio Buckeye Region volunteered to meet the desperate needs of the thousands affected by these devastating storms, as well as the wildfires that blazed in the western United States.
During these disasters, people in the region continued to experience home fires and tornados. With so many volunteers deployed, who would meet these ongoing needs?
One of those who stepped up to the plate is Ernie Fischer, who began volunteering as a Red Cross disaster relief worker in March. His wife’s decades-long career with the organization was one factor in his decision.
Disaster relief workers are part of the Disaster Services department of the Red Cross. They are trained to offer emotional and material support to people affected by disasters large and small.
“It’s something I thought would be interesting and different,” Ernie says.
The most common local disasters are home fires. When such a disaster occurs, either first responders or those affected call the Disaster Services department. The team on call at the time meets at the Red Cross office to collect supplies and as much information as is available.
When they arrive at the scene, the team’s first step is to find out from fire personnel what’s going on. Then, when cleared by the fire department, they ask the residents whether they would like to receive help. Throughout the process, the volunteers respect the survivors’ right to decide for themselves how to use the help that is offered.
Every situation is different, Ernie says. He’s seen homes that were total losses, residents in shock because they’ve lost everything. He and volunteers like him offer water, blankets, and a listening ear.
Then they help people figure out how to start getting back to “normal.” Survivors might need to stay in a hotel for a while. They’ll need to replace clothes, prescriptions, and any important documents that were lost. The generosity of donors makes it possible for volunteers to offer financial assistance if it is needed for this recovery.
Ernie describes what he does as “being there for people when they’ve experienced a very traumatic event in their life.”
His approach, he says, is “Let them take you where they want you to go and be as supportive as possible.”
That supportive presence starts in the warm Red Cross van, and continues with a follow-up call a few days later from a Red Cross caseworker, another volunteer role Ernie fills. The caseworker might offer referrals for furniture or guidance in finding another place to live. People are resilient, so this connection with a caseworker usually lasts no longer than three weeks.
By then, most people are on the way to recovery. Their home is being renovated, or they’ve found a new one. They’ve replaced clothing, birth certificates, and driver’s licenses. They may have even been able to salvage a few treasured family photos. They’ve begun to experience “normal” again.
Ninety-four percent of the Red Cross workforce is volunteer. As a Red Cross volunteer, you, too, can be the best part of someone’s worst day. To find out how, visit http://www.redcross.org/volunteer/volunteer-opportunities. Whatever your interests and skills are, there is a place for you!