Thursday, December 27, 2012

26th Annual Holiday Party: From the Elves' Perspective

“I just like to smile! Smiling's my favorite.” –Will Ferrell as Buddy in Elf

Santa's Red Cross elves: Lydia Hignite, Sara Clifton and Colleen Stufflebeam work to spread holiday cheer at the 26th Annual Holiday Party

Monday, Dec. 17 Santa took a break from his sleigh and instead rode a fire truck downtown to the American Red Cross building on East Chestnut Street. Once he and Mrs. Claus had made their big entrance and settled into their places of honor, each in a chair sturdy enough to hold Old St. Nick and a little one on each knee, the couple proceeded in turn to greet each child and give him or her a small bag of toys. These were children who had lost some or all of their belongings to fire in the past year.

Santa must have good knees, because he gave 113 children toys that night. More than 35 Red Cross volunteers, alongside the firefighters of Louisville Professional Firefighters Union Local 345, donated their time to make the event a success, serving refreshments and overseeing crafts and games.

Of this group, four Red Cross staff members served as Santa’s trusty elves. The elves took seriously their role of  maintaining a neat line of children and families progressing toward Santa amidst the hubbub and excitement, chit chatting with those waiting in line, and smiling. There was a lot of smiling. Here, the elves share some highlights of the night:

“Spreading holiday cheer is not a tough job, especially when you have elf ears and your clothes jingle everywhere you go. I loved high-fiving little hands covered in candy cane stickiness and watching faces light up in awe with the first sight of Santa Claus. But most of all, I enjoyed watching families smile and laugh and play in spite of the difficult circumstances they’ve faced over the last year. Everyone should have the opportunity to share the wonder and joy of the holiday season with a child. There is a lot of healing there for elves, adults and children alike.”

-Rebekah Farley, Volunteer Specialist

“It was a memorable experience to see the children receive the presents firsthand, especially since Santa keeps us in the toy shop for most of the holiday season. I know this party was directed towards the kids, but the parents enjoyed it just as much. The evening was full of joyful songs, ear-to-ear smiles, and full belly laughs!”

-Colleen Stufflebeam, Community Resiliency Specialist

“The children at the American Red Cross party got a true tour of Santa’s workshop.  As an elf I got to help with presents but I also got to chase the children around and compliment their face paint.  We got to see the true blessings of our hard work!  The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized that finding presents under the tree is pretty cool, but helping Santa makes for the best Christmas imaginable!”

-Sara Clifton, Community Resiliency Specialist

“Right before each kid was about to see Santa, some were over-the-moon excited, jumping up and down, and some of the older kids were playing it cool. They probably felt they were a little old to be meeting Santa, but you could tell that they were actually secretly excited and happy to be there. And some of the really little ones were a little shy to meet him, but they had fun too. The kids jumping up and down had the biggest smiles on their faces I have ever seen. Their enthusiasm was infectious.”

-Lydia Hignite, Community Resiliency Specialist

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Bit of Happy News

The Red Cross workforce—employees and volunteers included—is made up of humanitarians, people who want to improve the lives of others. Over the past weekend, I saw an outpouring of Humanitarianism highlighted by Friday’s tragic school shooting in Connecticut. While some people don’t show it as often as others, it was a reminder that, overall, most people want to do good and help others.

In just the past month, the Louisville Area Chapter has had the pleasure of working with thousands of these “everyday” humanitarians. Schools, businesses, and other community organizations in Kentucky and Southern Indiana helped sign 42,000 cards for the 2013 Holiday Mail for Heroes Campaigns. The cards included thank you’s, well wishes, and even plain hellos to let military members, their families and veterans know someone was thinking of them during the holidays.

On December 13th, 14 students graduated from the Red Cross Nurse Aide Training (NAT) program. A few of them shared stories on why they chose to pursue a nursing career. NAT student Cindy King said that while the workdays might be long, she believes being a nurse is the most rewarding job a person can have. “During my training, I’ve seen that just a smile, a drink, or the smallest conversation will brighten someone’s day,” Cindy said during the graduation ceremony.

On the 17th, we hosted our annual Holiday Party for kids affected by home fires. The kids had a blast sitting on Santa’s lap, getting their faces painted and participating in fun arts and crafts. Our partners with the Louisville Firefighters Union Local 345 stood by quietly, observing the children react to their gifts. While shopping for toys earlier this month, the cost surpassed the allocated budget. Union members pooled money out of their own pockets to help cover the excess.

These acts of kindness give me that warm, fuzzy feeling even when I’m having a bah humbug kind of day. I hope the stories and photos help brighten your day, too.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksliving - Disaster Spiritual Care Team

Red Cross Chaplain Ron Oliver reflects on his role with Disaster Spiritual Care Team at Red Cross Disaster Headquarters, New York, NY 11/17/12. (American Red Cross/Vicky Brown)
The following was written by Vicky Brown, a Red Cross Public Affairs officer currently responding to Hurricane Sandy.

“Do no harm,” this is the mantra of the Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Team. Led by Certified Chaplain Ronald Oliver, PH.D, (Louisville, KY), the team helps Red Cross staff and clients utilize the resources of their faith to understand and cope with Hurricane Sandy.

“As its core work, chaplains utilize the authority and unique tools of the pastoral office to fortify faith and hope. Also to solve, or at least mitigate, the problems and anxieties of those affected,” Ron said.

Ron pointed out the most important difference between chaplain service and parish pastoral service. “Because of the neutrality of the Red Cross, we offer a spiritual process, not a religious content. In other words, we help people use their religious tool box. This is regardless of whether they are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, etc. We do not do evangelistic preaching of a specific religious agenda, but are inclusive and respectful of all faiths.”

The DSC Team accomplishes this in several ways. Along with Red Cross health and mental health teams, chaplains do condolence visits to those who have tragically lost family members. They visit shelters and distribution sites, to bring hope to those devastated. Chaplains walk the streets in disaster zones comforting individuals and helping with systemic community issues compounded by the storm. They also support Red Cross staff and volunteers through the long, tough days of deployment.

“We help make the heart good again,” as Ron so eloquently stated.

Ron is the System Vice President of Mission and Outreach for the Norton Healthcare System. Norton Healthcare is a faith based, five hospital organization located in Louisville, KY. Ron first took Red Cross training in 1999 and was part of AIR (Air Incident Response) and SAIR (Spiritual Air Incident Response) teams. His first deployment was to the condolence center in New York following 9/11. He also volunteered during the 2006 Comair plane crash in Lexington, KY. Currently he is serving on a national task force to develop a model for more chapters to implement a Disaster Spiritual Care Team. The model is being piloted in Louisville, San Diego and Cincinnati chapters.

On his current deployment in New York, Ron’s job is to set a vision for the DSC Team derived from Red Cross organizational priorities. With a quiet but strong leadership style, he helps remove obstacles, problem solve and encourage. He often has to make sure chaplains and volunteers take care of themselves.
Red Cross Chaplain Allen Sieger offers comfort at the Amityville Distribution Center in Amityville, NY 11/17/12. (American Red Cross/Vicky Brown)

“They will work until they drop and not takes days off,” he said. “I have to show them how to recharge their batteries by getting away from it all. We cannot look into the sun every day without being adversely affected. We will always remember what happened here, be connected to it emotionally and know in some way we made a positive difference. Down the road, broken bones heal, but they always hurt when the weather changes.”

Ron shared some of the client stories that he has dealt with in New York while helping those affected by Hurricane Sandy. In Breezy Way, NY, he found a woman digging through the rubble of her home that had been ravaged by a ferocious fire. She pointed to a tiny black stump on the ground that had previously been the family tree that they had planted years ago. She had taken part of the stump to her sister’s house, where she was now staying. After putting it in water, to her delight, it had started to sprout little green buds. She said, “It is like her life now, living someplace else, but with help, starting to blossom again.”

Two other client families will forever impact Ron's life and remind us all of what is important. Both had lost spouses when each individual went back to retrieve possessions in the rising flood waters. They were subsequently trapped and drowned in the swirling torrent. Ron reflected about the symbolism of this in relation to the upcoming holiday season.

“With water up to your chest, do we choose to save the right stuff? Do we live life with gratitude and humility? Do we live with Thanksliving. Thanksgiving is a discipline, not just a day.”

Good advice for all of us at this holiday and family time.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Shelter Halloween in Yonkers, N.Y.

During Halloween arts and crafts time at a shelter for those affected by Hurricane Sandy
in Yonkers, N.Y., Red Cross employee Kelly Boyd decorates paper pumpkins with--
clockwise from her right--Aasira, Raffiah, Nazaya, Skylar, Destiney, Gabrielle and Zionia.

At the time of this writing, officials report that power is out for 70 percent of the city of Yonkers, N.Y. Hurricane Sandy came through on Monday night, bringing flooding to streets in the city and apartments by the Hudson River. Several families in one such apartment, including 10 young children, were evacuated from their complex on Tuesday night following an electrical outage.

The families came to a shelter staffed by two local Office of Emergency Management officers and seven Red Cross workers including me and my partner Carrie Smith. Carrie has been volunteering with the Red Cross for eight years and was first deployed to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. I have been with the Red Cross for just over two months, and this is my first disaster relief operation.

Seeing so many young faces enter the shelter on the brink of Halloween, with no hopes for trick-or-treating the next day, Carrie and I, along with the other shelter workers, reached a consensus almost immediately that the kids needed an opportunity to celebrate Halloween.

"The reason why we wanted to do something special for the kids," Carrie said, "is because during a disaster everyone is upset—they're hurt and they're crying. They've lost everything they have. So we need to do something to take their minds off of it, even if it's just for two minutes."

So after a Wednesday morning Target run, a Halloween celebration schedule was set in place: arts and crafts, face painting and a "trick-or-treat parade."

Kelly Boyd from the Northern Nevada Red Cross Chapter and I teamed up to help the kids decorate bright orange paper pumpkins with markers and stickers. Once the pumpkins were fully decorated and hanging on the wall, the two of us moved on to face painting. The children (all girls) requested butterflies, princess crowns and kitten whiskers. They couldn't get enough.

For the grand finale, we gave each girl a Halloween bag, and each adult a bag of candy and a place to stand along a long path. The girls then had a trick-or-treat parade, dancing past the runway of people to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," while proudly displaying their face paint and eagerly holding out their bags for the adults to deposit candy. That part, at least, was not unlike a typical Halloween.

"The event not only lifted the morale of the kids, but it helped the parents as well," Kelly said. "Even people in the shelter without kids, their faces just lit up."

The Mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano, arrived just after the parade to pass out candy to the children, but the hype was lost on six-year-old Zionia. She was busy looking through her bag as soon as the mayor added more candy.

While she was doing that, I ask, "What was your favorite part of today?" 

"Umm... that you all gave us candy," she says thoughtfully.

I shrug. That's to be expected from a six-year-old.

"Look!" she says to me and points her finger to the wall behind me.

I turn, and she gives me a kiss on the cheek.

That was unexpected.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Family Displaced By Fire, Disaster Action Team Meets Their Immediate Needs

“I didn’t really hear the explosion. It sounded like a boom, like thunder, and then a crackling, and I smelled burning. It was pretty cold outside, but it started getting warm.”

Shaquan, 27, is sitting in the back seat of the white Red Cross van, while my Disaster Action Team partner Jim sits in the driver’s seat. I’m on the passenger’s side. We’re listening as he recounts the events of a few hours earlier, when a fire caused major damage to his home.

“It was like consistent thunder,” Shaquan said.  “Thunder usually has a pulse; it’ll go and stop, but this was like a consistent thunder.”

It’s only early October, but outside it’s already cold, just past midnight and pouring rain. It’s warm inside the van.

A few hours earlier Shaquan and his three children were in their home when a fire started in the vacant house next door. Shortly after he heard what sounded like thunder, Shaquan heard his neighbor knocking on the door.

“She said, ‘Get out. Grab your kids, and get out now.’”

Shaquan turned immediately to grab his three kids, and he saw a wall of flames shoot up where he had stood not seconds earlier. He and his children: Aniya, age 5; Jasmine, age 4; and Jeremiah, age 3 all got out safely.

Jasmine has severe asthma and relies on a nebulizer to keep her breathing normal. Her father says that she also receives regular oxygen treatments at certain times throughout the day.  Fortunately, the children had been made ready for bed right before the fire started, so Jasmine had just finished her nightly treatment.

“I’m grateful that she got it done before she was about to go to bed, or else we would be at the hospital right now,” Shaquan said.

By the time Jim and I completed the casework for the family, all three children were asleep at grandma’s house across town. Halfway through our interview the children’s mother and Shaquan’s fiancĂ©, Treasha, joined us. She had just finished putting the children to bed. She was at work when the fire occurred.

The Red Cross provided a few nights’ stay at a nearby hotel; money for food, clothes and shoes; three stuffed Mickey Mouses for the kids and two comfort  kits filled with toiletries and other essential items for the adults.

The family plans to move into Shaquan’s mother’s house until they can figure out their next step. Although the front of the house doesn’t look that bad from the sidewalk, once you step inside you can see the ceilings are completely burnt out, even after firefighters removed the dry wall. 

However, the family seems confident that they will figure something out. “To just sit there and watch our house burn, it was ridiculous,” Shaquan said. “But it’s people like you who are helping. You being out here tonight and really caring; you’re who’s really helping us. Thank you.”