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Most Red Cross personnel are volunteers

DPW remove branches after the storm on Chesterfield Rd.
CAROL LOLLIS

DPW remove branches after the storm on Chesterfield Rd. CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

When weather-related events or other disasters strike, one of the first groups of responders people in need expect to see is the American Red Cross.

But just what the role of the national humanitarian agency, established in 1881, is and how it operates are not always understood. Despite that long history, local Red Cross officials say there are some misconceptions about who they are and what they do.

One of the biggest misunderstandings is that all personnel on an emergency site are on the Red Cross payroll. The reality, says Mary Nathan, director of Disaster Services at the Red Cross Pioneer Valley Chapter, is that 98 percent of those people are not getting paid.

“We’re the agency out there meeting their emergency disaster needs and the majority of the people we work with our volunteers,” Nathan said.

And even if the public was aware the majority of those wearing the Red Cross logo were volunteers, they would not know they had undergone a prescreening process to be approved as a volunteer, she said.

That was never more evident that during last year’s June 1 tornado that ripped a 39-mile path of destruction in western and central Massachusetts. On the day the twister hit, more than 1,000 people lined up near the Pioneer Valley chapter headquarters on Cottage Street in Springfield offering assistance. While an amazing turnout in the face of a crisis, the spontaneous response to the tornado was actually a challenge for Red Cross officials, said Rick Lee, director of the local Red Cross chapter.

“There was a frustration with us that we weren’t processing people fast enough because we wouldn’t put them out on jobs if they hadn’t undergone a background check,” he said. “We ask for peoples’ patience in understanding that we’re trying to serve everyone in the best possible way and make sure that people get help and in no way are harmed by anything we do.”

Red Cross officials are now looking into how they can use unscreened volunteers on a limited basis, such as serving in a food line, when large-scale disasters happen, Lee said.

Another misconception is that people who receive help from the Red Cross have to pay the agency back. Funding for services comes mostly from the United Way and public donations. The Red Cross is not a governmental agency.

“There is no expectation that you pay for our services. The assistance we give is a one-way gift,” Nathan said.

A stay at a shelter is often a unique experience for many people who may not know what to expect.

“Residents should expect to be in there with a lot of different types of people. That requires patience and empathy in order to all get along,” Lee said. “We’re all in the same lifeboat at that time.”

Shelter residents need to be flexible, emergency officials say, noting that in long recovery events, they may get moved to another shelter, as happened in the aftermath of the June 1 tornado.

“It’s always an awkward thing. People had their lives uprooted so you don’t want to move them unless absolutely necessary,” Lee said.

In an effort to improve on its services, the Red Cross will follow up with people after an emergency or disaster to find out what was most useful to them. To the surprise of local officials, one of the biggest helps is a resource packet provided to clients that offers them contact information specific to their needs, such as how to clean clothing that was exposed to a fire or how to contact their utility company to restore service.

Due to all the severe weather events of last year, the national office of the Red Cross provided the Pioneer Valley chapter with a trailer containing 800 cots and about 1,000 blankets, and additional kits of essential toiletries to be used in shelters, said Donna Toupin, the local Red Cross shelter coordinator.

“This is the first time these have been pre-deployed here to us. They saw what has happened to our area,” she said.

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