Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why I’ll Never Regret Volunteering


I have been an American Red Cross volunteer since the early 2000s. Why? Well, to be honest, I was looking for a mission to care about. Between contracts as a graphic designer and content writer; I was going slightly stir crazy, and it was a slow period in New York at the time. So I briefly thought through areas that I wanted to support, and randomly chose American Red Cross.   

I walked in the door of the Greater New York Chapter which was at 150 Amsterdam Avenue. I went directly to HR/Volunteer Resources where I met Curt. He looked at my resume, asked me to sit down and called the disaster health and mental health director who invited me to come on board to assist them in re-configuring and updating their roster and have better track of their people. About two months after I took on that role, the lead, Lauren came by my cubicle and stated, “You know media; Right”?”  I was deep in writing, so I answered flippantly, “Yes, like you know medicine and there are so many different kinds of both!” That brought about the response, “well, either way, you’re coming with me now, let’s go!” So into her vehicle I went and off we drove to Far Rockaway New York.

Upon arrival, there were ambulances, multiple FDNY teams and media everywhere. Lauren said; “I don’t handle media, I handle medicine. Our media team was unavailable, so you go handle media.” Trying to wrap my head around the type of handling expected of me, I looked around and saw the FDNY Incident Commander with a white hat and a shirt and tie. I walked over to him to ask for the current status of events and before I could say anything; he handed me a small container of Vick's Vapor Rub, saying; “Here, you need this!” I tried to figure out what was going on for a minute, and then I began to smell it. I have not come up with adequate words to explain what it smelled like, something between grilled meat and I don’t even have a word for it. I took the menthol rub and put it around my nose and gradually began to think clearly again. Looking back at the commander, he reported that eight bodies were already discovered and there were several people still unaccounted for at that point. Then he stepped aside and directed me to the cameras and the satellite vans nearby and said, “You’re on.”

I repeated the talking points nearly 200 times in the course of the following 8 hours on scene and as new data arrived, I continuously updated the journalists who had come from print, cable and broadcast media providing updated numbers of fatalities, injuries and where families and those affected were being cared for nearby. Time began to blur a bit as the repetition became more and more automated after a time. My husband called around 530 wondering what had become of me and I told him I would be a while and that he could go to NY1 to learn why if he wanted.

At 11:33 pm, (I remember the time looking at my phone); I began to look around and the vans were packed and leaving, the media floodlights were gone and the FDNY began the overhaul process to ensure that the fire was completely out. Lauren worked her way back to me at about that point and let me know that everyone was being cared for at this point and the temporary shelter had been staffed and was in full operations at that point, saying, “You did a really good job!”

I honestly felt like I had snapped back to consciousness and looked at her for a second trying to remember what was going on. I then said, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back”; and proceeded to run to the nearby alley and began throwing up for several minutes. When I came back over to her, Lauren asked me if I had ever considered working in public affairs or media relations. I looked at her thinking she was crazy and noted, “You did just see me throw up all over that trash can right?” where she replied, “Yes, but I also noticed that you were completely composed until the cameras went away. That is a talent that very few have. You may want to consider doing more in that area.  

Nearly 15 years later now, I have repeated that cycle on over 200 incidents. There have been many successful missions with rescued people and animals where all are traumatized but alive to be so. There have also been many with multiple fatalities where I become the spokesperson walking the narrow line as first the protector for the family members, children and others who are not ready to be exposed to the world during the worst day of their lives; and second the public information provider to the remainder of the community. I deployed to larger incidents during multiple hurricanes, (Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Gustav, Isaac and Sandy); Nor’easters in Boston and in New Jersey; Crashes from large ones with Sully Sullenberger; to smaller but far more fatal ones with NY Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and a bus crash on Interstate 95 in the Bronx that killed 13 people. 

I won’t try to sell you on volunteering for the adrenaline rush or for the adventure, although yes, those are still two pluses that are still ones I experience. Instead, I want to encourage you and all of my colleagues who, like me, still continue to volunteer on top of a full-time job and family, professional and personal commitments that will always be a factor. Rather, I want you to know why I keep doing it. Every time I almost quit and run for the hills saying I don’t have enough to keep giving to this; I end up in a situation where someone’s life is directly affected and they are less damaged and ultimately able to get better. From a two year old alive and well after a massive fire; to a recovering addict being treated like a human being long enough to begin to believe he actually is one; a fireman who rescues a small kitten who is all wet with his whiskers singed but still quite alive; to helping an elderly woman get back into her apartment to get her dentures after the building has a full evacuation who comes back with the Fireman beaming with a big smile. Every one of these literally stocks up my volunteer patience bucket long enough to jump back in and do it again. My husband has been extraordinarily supportive and patient and even stepped up to participate and volunteer as well. He and my dog have even stepped up to assist in some of the more fun aspects of the job.  As he supported me, he began to feel the urge to help others as well, so he became EMT certified and has been a first-responder on multiple occasions in New York and now here in the DC area for both law enforcement and rescue teams; also while working a full-time job. There are bad days too where no matter what you do it is not enough, and everyone is burning at both ends; but still, Mark Twain probably put it best; “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do…” For me, it is now getting closer to 20 years, and as far as the disasters and the people I was able to help, there are no regrets. So frankly, that is why I keep volunteering.

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