By: Debbie Chitester, Disaster Program Manager for Summit, Portage, and Medina Counties
I literally have been with the Red Cross since birth, as both of my parents had volunteered with the Red Cross since before I was born. Serving and helping others was instilled in me at a very young age. One of my earliest memories centers around playing house in the old feeding vehicle at the chapter building on 12th and Prospect.
The blizzard of ’78 hit when I was 7-years-old. My family lived at the office for a week while my parents helped with the many aspects of sheltering and communication. My job, that week, was to be the elevator operator. I learned how to close the doors, wind it up and push the buttons to make it go. I also served as the message runner, taking messages from one end of the hall to other.
Over the years I listened to the calls my parents would take from clients, those that had fires or any other emergency. This was a time before a centralized emergency number existed, so people called the Red Cross. Through their examples, I could see that helping people was so rewarding. I watched my parents receive such great satisfaction from giving a little boy, who just had a fire, a bag of apples. I saw, first hand, the power of a simple gesture.
For many years, my dad would always take the Disaster Action Team shift over the four day Thanksgiving holiday. He would always say that he had so much to be thankful for, that he wanted show that gratitude by helping others. So, growing up, there were a few Thanksgiving Day meals interrupted by a call to assist others in need.
It was witnessing these experiences as I was growing up that drove me study Social Work in college. So I, too, could help people.
These memories from my childhood led into many more memories throughout my career. My first disaster relief operation was Hurricane Andrew in 1992. I had just graduated college and had just been hired on as a caseworker after completing my internship. We provided casework services out of tent in South Florida, and we made a home of it for our clients and volunteers. A few weeks into my assignment, we got word that then President of the Red Cross, Elizabeth Dole, was going to stop in for a visit the next day. We all wanted to show off our “home” and set about to tidy up the place. Across the compound was a sign that announced the name of our little home. It had been beat up and faded by the South Florida sun, so I decided that it needed to be spruced up. I found a black sharpie marker, sat down in front of that sign and just started coloring. It was kind of therapeutic in a way to color the sign. As I sat there, the Disaster Mental Health volunteer came by to check on me.
“Oh, yes! I love to color, and it is kind of helpful for me to do this!” I replied.
“Oh,” he said, “that is good.” He turned to walk away. Then he turned back.
“Should I be concerned that you are only using black?”
I smiled back, and, laughing, said, “It was the only color I could find!” The next day Elizabeth Dole showed up, as schedule, and while I do not think she saw my sign, I was still proud of my coloring project.
In my years with this organization, there has always been change. We have moved forward in the last 25-years by always keeping the needs of the client in mind. The biggest, positive change for clients was the implementation of Client Assistance Cards, a pre-paid gift type card that we use to provide financial assistance. This may seem like a such an odd thing as the most positive change, but it really helps the client become more involved with their own recovery. The card helps to take away some of the stigma of being a disaster client, as they can now go where they want and do not have to endure the special attention of using a specific voucher.
I love what I do, and have lived the mission of the Red Cross for a long time.
Debbie celebrated 25-years as a paid staff member with the Red Cross on July 19. She was recognized with an award, seen here, from Regional CEO, Mike Parks and Regional Disaster Officer, Tim O’Toole at the Quarterly All Staff Meeting on August 15.