Virtual Volunteers Provide Very Real Services

By EILENE E. GUY American Red Cross Volunteer

In the wake of an unprecedented number of large disasters last year, the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced people touched the hearts of Americans near and far.

Dozens of American Red Cross disaster responders from Northeast Ohio answered the call to help, but not all of them left the Buckeye State.

“I couldn’t see going all the way to another state to sit in a cubicle and talk to people on the phone when I could do it just as well from right here,” said Red Cross volunteer Charles “Charlie” Emick of Mount Eaton.

Charlie is an experienced disaster caseworker who helps Wooster-area individuals and families after a home fire or other local emergency. He put that experience to use last year for flood victims a thousand miles away.

“People don’t realize I’m not right there,” he said. “A lot of times, they’re just tickled to death to talk to someone who cares about what they’ve been through.

“I had one lady (on the phone), she wasn’t injured, but she had to wade out through water up to her elbows and she saw a water moccasin swimming toward her. The more she tried to swish it away, the more it came toward her. She finally got to a shallow spot and got out of the water and she said all she could do was scream.

“I told her, I’m afraid of snakes too,” Charlie said with a chuckle.

“Some clients expect that you can put things back the way they were before,” he observed. “But with others, it’s like you’re talking to a neighbor across the street. They’re just so glad someone cares.”

Charlie uses computer data bases to screen clients for eligibility for the limited financial assistance Red Cross can give if victims don’t qualify for federal assistance through FEMA.

He can also connect them with Red Cross health and mental health services as well as local resources listed in the national computer-based Client Assistance Network.

Sandy Perry-Johnson of Warren is another member of the Red Cross “virtual volunteer” team.

“I’m in awe of people who can leave home and go to help, but I can’t do that right now because of my family responsibilities here,” she said.

For the past year, Sandy has been helping Youngstown-area disaster victims figure out what they need and connecting them with resources to meet those needs. She knows that recovery from a disaster can be a confusing, emotionally draining and complicated process.

She appreciates that the Red Cross gives her a way to help, long-distance. “Now I can do casework with people from Louisiana right from my home,” she said following the disastrous flooding there.

“During our response in Louisiana (last year), we committed a great amount of resources to designing and implementing a virtual casework process that enables volunteers to remotely assist those in the disaster area,” said Timothy J. O’Toole, Red Cross regional disaster officer for northeast Ohio.

“Our use of virtual volunteers opens up opportunities for a whole lot more people to help with disaster relief,” he explained. “Plus it lets us provide the most services for the money we spend, making the best use of our donated dollars.”

Virtual volunteers supplemented the work of more than 4,200 Red Cross responders in Louisiana, who, in one month, served more than a million meals and snacks, operated shelters that provided some 72,000 overnight stays, and distributed more than 679,000 relief supplies such as bottled water, insect repellant, cleaning supplies and bleach.

Meanwhile, Crystal Wagner of Akron put her 15 years of disaster experience to work to “virtually” help Red Crossers who actually went to Louisiana. She considers herself a “lifeline” for volunteers who run into roadblocks on the way.

“We had so many brand new volunteers who have no clue what to expect,” she said. It’s a surprise to many that if they run into a problem en route, experienced volunteers like Crystal are just a phone call away, day or night.

“For example, I had this poor guy from Pennsylvania who was headed for Baton Rouge. When he got to Atlanta, there was no connection to Baton Rouge, so they put him on a plane to New Orleans,” she recounted. To make a long story short, Crystal spent several hours sorting out transportation and housing snafus for the first-time volunteer so that he could fulfill his mission – to help Louisiana flood victims.

Crystal knows how to navigate the hurdles of deployment: She’s been all over the country on 69 disasters herself. But now, at age 70 with an elderly mother to look after at home, she’s enthusiastic about being part of the Red Cross disaster response “virtually.”

She fondly recalls her own first deployment, to New York City after 9/11. “I had only been on a plane once, I had never been to New York City… Everything that could go wrong did,” she said. But she stayed for five weeks and learned two lessons she cherishes.

“They needed me,” she said. “And I found out there’s nothing in this world I can’t handle.”

Now Crystal doesn’t have to leave home to experience the joy of helping those who need her.

During the month of March, which has been designated Red Cross Month for the past 70 years, we salute the dedicated volunteers who help fulfill the Red Cross mission.

To find out more about becoming a Red Cross disaster volunteer, contact your local Red Cross chapter or go to redcross.org/neo and click on the “volunteer” tab.

The Red Cross relies on the generosity of the American public for its funding. To help people affected by disasters big and small, visit redcross.org, call 1-800-REDCROSS, or text the words RED CROSS to 90999 to a make a $10 donation. Designated donations are the first dollars used to support Red Cross response efforts. If costs exceed designated donations, Red Cross Disaster Relief funds will be used to cover the difference.

Donations enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters near and far.

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