The power of personal connections: Transitioning back to in-person disaster response

By Tim Poe, American Red Cross volunteer

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many American Red Cross services are transitioning back to being in-person, especially in Disaster Response and Sheltering. While virtual response and other safety measures helped the Red Cross effectively respond to disasters during the height of the pandemic, in-person assistance was missed. As Mike Arthur, regional mass care and logistics manager for Northern Ohio, explained, the ability to provide hot coffee and a hug can mean a great deal.

In addition to Mike, I spoke with Tom Revolinsky, Red Cross disaster program manager for Northeast Ohio, and volunteer Mark Cline, whose many responsibilities include serving as lead for Disaster Action Team (DAT) and Sheltering Applications in Northern Ohio. Each spoke about how effective an in-person connection is for Red Cross responders and clients recovering from a disaster.

Red Cross volunteers respond to an apartment fire

Tom said the transition began a month ago and is going very well. The DAT team is ensuring volunteers are comfortable with the change, and it is safe. As we learn more, he said, we will adapt to ensure everyone’s safety.

Currently, 80% of disaster responses in our region are in-person. For the other 20%, virtual response remains the best option. Northern Ohio DAT has been highly active. Over the past two weekends they responded to 14 home fires, assisting 73 people.

Mark said an in-person meeting gives a chance to better connect with those in need of assistance, as it is much more personal. Similarly, Tom spoke of how meeting in-person better provides the opportunity to give hope, show someone cares and help with recovery. 

Tom recalled how after an exceptionally busy day, he received a late-night call to respond following a home fire. Upon arrival, he met a woman, in tears, sitting in front of her burned-out house. His being there greatly helped, provided comfort, and she soon moved from tears to smiles. Tom said it was empowering for him.

Disaster responder Jan Cooper assists resident Gabriella Asseff after a condo fire in Westlake

I had similar experiences during my time with DAT. The instances when I could see a person begin to recover, to smile and hope again, remain with me.

As for sheltering following a large disaster—fortunately not common in our region—Mike and Tom said congregate housing is now the first option. This will ensure enough space is available, as many hotels are currently near capacity. Safety protocols will be in place. Both Tom and Mike said the Red Cross remains flexible and adapts to each situation, and non-congregate housing remains an option.

Such adaptability has been a hallmark of the Red Cross. When the pandemic necessitated virtual responses to disasters, the DAT team responded. Additionally, technology implemented during the pandemic is also helping with in-person responses.

For many of us, the pandemic underscored the importance of personal connections, especially following a disaster. Thankfully, Northern Ohio DAT responders can provide that again, offering financial assistance along with comfort, hugs and hope.

National Volunteer Week spotlight: Pete Ulrich remembered as dedicated trainer and great guy who saved lives

By: Chris Chmura, American Red Cross volunteer

Everyone on the American Red Cross Transportation Specialist and Disaster Program teams knew Peter Ulrich simply as “Pete.” He was well known across Northern Ohio for being an excellent teacher with a natural teaching talent who trained countless volunteers for the Red Cross. Pete was based out of his hometown of Akron, Ohio, but his influence reached across the region. Volunteer transportation specialists deliver lifesaving blood products from Red Cross distribution facilities to hospitals. 

My first time meeting Pete was just over a year ago to learn my role as a transportation specialist. From the start, I was truly impressed with how professional, organized and genuine Pete was. We worked together for about four hours that night. Pete was not only an incredible trainer but he was a lot of fun to work with, hard to keep up with and had a quick-witted sense of humor. 

Over this past year, I would run into Pete while on my routes. He would take to time to say “hi,” ask how I was doing and offer to help if needed. Pete said two things that come to mind whenever I am working in the Akron Red Cross office and delivering to Akron General Hospital. He would say, “This is the world’s slowest elevator,” referring to the Akron Red Cross building each time we were in it. (He just wanted to keep moving!) Second, Pete was showing me around at Akron General Hospital and I feel he was starting to trust me because he said in a witty way, “You will learn really fast that I like to do things my own way,” meaning he had a creative style to get the job done. He made volunteering fun.

Sadly, Pete, age 63, passed away March 13. The retired high school band director and high school administrator was a lifelong learner. In retirement, he earned his Doctor of Education and continued to consult with colleagues. An enthusiastic volunteer, Pete served as an usher for the Akron Civic Theater and E.J. Thomas Hall before becoming a Red Cross volunteer.

“Pete was great guy. That is what everyone says about him that he has touched,” said Debbie Chitester, disaster program manager for the Greater Akron and the Mahoning Valley Red Cross. “He was always someone who would go out of his way for someone. Even during COVID, I would see him there on Sundays making sure the vehicles were all set to go for the drivers. He always took that extra step. Pete trained many of the Biomed drivers, so his legacy will live on.”

“Pete Ulrich was a Red Cross hero. In his volunteer role, he saved lives every day. He took great pride in volunteering for the Red Cross and the transportation program,” said Shelby Beamer, transportation coordinator for the Red Cross Northern Ohio Region. “The organization will forever be grateful for having Pete Ulrich on our team and his hard work and dedication in helping grow the transportation program in Northern Ohio.”

Pete, you will be missed because you were a good human being, dedicated to your family, an educator, volunteer and hero. In his obituary, Pete suggested taking time each day to communicate with someone you love, be they near or far.

Your time and talent can make a real difference in people’s lives. To learn more about volunteering, visit redcross.org/volunteer.

Edited by: Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

National Volunteer Week spotlight: Recovery Coordinator Debbie Ziss aids victims after disasters

By: Olivia Wyles, American Red Cross volunteer

Today we recognize Debbie Ziss, one of the American Red Cross recovery coordinators for the Northeast Ohio Region who also serves on the Disaster Action Team. The Disaster Action Team (DAT) is a group that is dedicated to helping their communities respond to the scene of disasters. The DAT does this not only by responding to the immediate needs of individuals after a disaster, but also by guiding them as they navigate what their life will look like post-disaster and assisting them in accessing resources they need. Debbie has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for about two years and typically manages the recovery for 50+ people every week.

“Debbie is a fearless advocate for the client in assisting them to find resources for overcoming barriers in their recovery,” said Tom Revolinsky, disaster program manager for the Red Cross of Northeast Ohio.

One of the common disasters that the DAT group responds to is home fires, and Debbie has recounted helping individuals who have experienced house fires, entire apartment fires and fires resulting in the unfortunate death of a family member. Although it is challenging to help individuals work through the experience of losing the most important things or people in their lives, Debbie feels that it is an honor to be able to help them through.

“Whether you work at the Red Cross or you’re a client of the Red Cross, you have a story,” Debbie said. “As a volunteer, I’ve learned to make their story my story as well.”

Debbie serves the DAT mostly through casework assignments. She is constantly looking to get things done as well as she can and take the lead in new cases. When asked about some of the skills needed as a DAT volunteer, Debbie said that it is important to pay close attention not only to what people are saying, but how they say it.

“Everyone handles trauma differently,” Debbie explained. She hopes to be able to make a difference in the lives of the individuals who she is able to work with.

Volunteers with an open heart and dedicated spirit like Debbie’s are crucial to the work of the Red Cross. We thank Debbie for her impactful work with us. If you would like more information on the Disaster Action Team and would like to assist the Red Cross advance its mission, visit: https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/disaster-action-team.html.

Edited by: Glenda Bogar, American Red Cross volunteer

In Northern Ohio and nationwide, Americans support one another a year into COVID-19

Please take part in Red Cross Giving Day as #HelpCantWait

Tim Poe, American Red Cross Volunteer.

As a Northern Ohio-based American Red Cross volunteer, I have seen how quickly disaster can strike. How a fire, tornado, lightning strike, flood, or other event impacts lives. And I have seen the effectiveness of your donations. How a comfort kit, meal, blanket, or financial assistance helps those affected begin to recover, to look toward the future. I have also seen the dedication and compassion of many Red Cross volunteers and staff members across several service areas, including Disaster Response, Blood Services, and Service to the Armed Forces. As today is Giving Day, please consider joining thousands of caring people and taking part, whether through financial support, a blood donation, or volunteering.

Red Cross services have been especially needed in the past year. In addition to the COVID-19 global pandemic, 2020 had the greatest number of billion-dollar disasters in a single year. Many from our region helped; nearly 200 Northern Ohioans deployed to 24 large-scale disasters during the year.

Locally, just since July 1, the Red Cross’s Northern Ohio region responded to 848 disasters, assisting 1,249 families (2,074 adults and 1,122 children).

Through it all, the Red Cross effectively continued its mission, with safety protocols in place.

Emotional, spiritual, and mental health support during the pandemic have been one focus area. In 2020, disaster mental health and spiritual care volunteers had more than 53,000 conversations, and free counseling is available through the Red Cross’s Virtual Family Assistance Center for grieving families during COVID-19.

I spoke with Red Cross volunteer Mark Cline, whose numerous responsibilities include Region Program Lead for Northern Ohio’s Disaster Action Team (DAT).  Mark focused on how the Red Cross has continued helping people recover from disasters using safety measures like virtual responses where possible. Mark lauded his fellow volunteers and staff, saying, “Being part of the Disaster Action Team proves to me a team working together will get the job done, even in a pandemic!”

Here are some examples of what a financial gift can provide:

  • $500: Help families affected by disasters. In Northern Ohio, the Red Cross responds to an average of more than three disasters each day, mostly home fires.
  • $200:  Deploy an emergency response vehicle (ERV) for a day. ERVs deliver food, supplies, comfort, and information to those in need.
  • $100: Cleaning supply kits for five families.
  • $95: A day’s worth of food and essential supplies for a family in urgent need after a disaster.
  • $60: Warm meals for six.
  • $35: Essential relief items for two.

To participate in Giving Day with financial support, please go to redcross.org/GivingDay. A gift of any size makes a difference.

For volunteer opportunities, please visit redcross.org/VolunteerToday.

If you are healthy and feeling well, please consider donating blood. Visit RedCrossBlood.org.

To learn lifesaving skills like CPR and First Aid, consider taking a class at redcross.org/TakeAClass. Online options include Psychological First Aid for COVID-19.

When the world stopped, the Red Cross didn’t

Reflections on the response to the pandemic on the one-year anniversary

By Doug Bardwell, American Red Cross volunteer

March 2020 would prove to be one of my most memorable volunteer months with the American Red Cross. Within weeks, the world began to see signs like this everywhere.

Everywhere, except at the Red Cross.

Let’s go back to March 1, 2020. This was the day the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the United States, in New York. By then, we had heard about the 400 Americans trapped on a ship in Japan, but we didn’t really consider that the virus was a U.S. problem at the time.

Two days later, everyone forgot about that story when multiple tornadoes ripped through central Tennessee, killing at least 25 people. I recall getting the call that morning and leaving immediately for Nashville to cover the details of the cleanup effort, the sheltering and feeding of hundreds of now homeless people and the mobilization of hundreds of truckloads of supplies.

As I drove home on March 10, New York Governor Cuomo had called on the National Guard to stop traffic around New Rochelle, where 108 cases had been discovered. COVID-19 was now a United States problem.

Just one day later, March 11, the WHO (World Health Organization) would declare this to be an official pandemic with more than 120,000 cases worldwide. That started a landslide of events, and before day’s end:

  • The NBA suspended the 2019-20 season until further notice
  • The NHL paused its 2019-20 season
  • The Dow Jones Industrial 30-day average plunged 20%, ending an 11-year bull market

But what didn’t come crashing to a stop…the Red Cross. 

That same day, President of the American Red Cross Gail McGovern, issued a long memo to all Red Cross volunteers.

In it, she detailed how we would be making all sorts of changes to our day-to-day operations, but what would not change, was our mission to deliver services to those in need.

Blood drives needed to be rescheduled as many businesses closed down, but the need for blood didn’t slow down. By finding larger venues where people could be scheduled and kept socially distanced, the flow of blood continued.

Fires and disasters didn’t stop, but our Humanitarian Services division devised new ways to house people in motels instead of congregate shelters, and our Disaster Action Teams learned to respond virtually using electronic funds transfers to get money quickly into the hands of those left homeless from fires and floods. 

As the rest of the world came to a virtual standstill one year ago today, the Red Cross quickly pivoted to maintain our services to those most in need. If you’d like to help, consider becoming a volunteer or make a contribution to the Red Cross to support our ongoing mission to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. 

Edited by Glenda Bogar, Red Cross Volunteer

Fires force families to flee their homes

Disaster workers respond to nearly a dozen home fires in Northeast Ohio over the weekend

Nearly three-dozen people, including nine children were left homeless – at least temporarily – following weekend fires in Cleveland, Lorain, Eastlake, Mansfield and Cadiz, Ohio.  Disaster action team members responded, tending to their immediate needs by providing financial assistance, comfort kits that include personal hygiene items, and hope for finding a way forward.

fire3

One of the fires near downtown Cleveland forced eight adults to flee in the middle of the night on Saturday.  Ben Bellucci, disaster program manager for the Red Cross of Greater Cleveland, said the tenants and property owners expressed heartfelt appreciation for the help being offered.

fire6“They had no idea we do this,” Ben said. “When I told them we respond to fires like these 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, they were shocked.  They could not have been more appreciative.”

Financial assistance totaling more than $6,300 was distributed to the 34 people who found themselves out in the cold.  Additional assistance was also offered, including help replacing prescription medications and eyeglasses, and making connections with other community resources.

Only by the power of our volunteer workforce and the generosity of our donors are we able to provide such assistance.  There is no government funding for the help residents receive – on average, three times every 24 hours in Northeast Ohio.  To make a financial contribution, visit www.redcross.org/donate.  And to volunteer to help your neighbors by responding to home fires and other disasters, apply here.

Photo credit: Ben Bellucci, American Red Cross

Home fires keep NEO disaster responders busy

Weekend disaster report, November 1-3, 2019

More than three-dozen people in Northeast Ohio were chased from their homes by fire over the weekend.  They received comfort and care from trained Red Cross disaster responders, volunteers who, in some cases, traveled far from their homes to help those in need.2019 Euclid fire response

“Our volunteers worked long and hard this weekend to make sure people in need received immediate assistance,” said Renee Palagyi, senior regional disaster program manager. “Some drove an hour-and-a-half to get help to the people who needed it.  Some stayed after their shift was scheduled to end; some started before they were scheduled to start.  I can’t say enough about the dedication of our volunteers.”

Disaster Action Team (DAT) members are on-call during scheduled shifts, and when a call comes to the Red Cross from a fire department, a neighbor, or another source, the volunteers on-call respond.  They provide immediate financial assistance, comfort kits filled with toiletries and other necessary supplies, and other help for those affected by fire.

This weekend, Red Cross disaster responders distributed nearly $8,200 to folks affected by home fires in 11 separate cases, impacting residents in Cleveland, Canton, Youngstown, Sandusky, Ashtabula Chesterland, Lisbon and East Liverpool.

There is always a need for trained disaster responders to help people during their darkest hours.  Visit redcross.org/volunteer to learn more, and to apply to become part of the regional Red Cross workforce in Northeast Ohio.

When Waters Rise, NEO Red Cross Responds – an Update

By Doug Bardwell – American Red Cross volunteer

Combine rapidly melting snow with heavy rainfall, and there’s always the possibility for river flooding. Last February, those conditions occurred throughout the upper Midwest states.

From our Northeast Ohio chapters alone, 28 disaster staff were deployed throughout Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.  First and foremost, shelters were opened for those whose homes were in danger of flooding. A safe and warm place to stay was extremely welcomed by those affected. Health service related needs were also attended to by our other volunteers.

Monica1

Red Cross volunteers prepare to assist flood victims in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Photo provided by Monica Bunner/American Red Cross volunteer

Monica Bunner, a Disaster Action Team member from the Summit, Portage & Medina chapter, was one of the first from this area to be deployed. Originally dispatched to a moderate-sized shelter in a high school in southern Ohio, she and her team provided a warm place to stay overnight as well as a place to come during the day to warm up, shower and recharge both the body and the cellphone.

Monica recalls one of the first residents to come to the shelter (and probably the last to leave) was an elderly gentleman who needed to be woken up at 3:30 am each day.  He would then walk into town and work 16-hour shifts at a fast food restaurant. Arriving back at the shelter in the evening, he would have dinner and immediately retire, only to repeat the cycle the next day.  His resilience to the situation touched everyone who met him.

New Richmond

Volunteers in New Richmond, Ohio

Another resident had been living in a trailer near the water, and as the level of the river rose, he recounted that a number of kittens living below his trailer started poking their heads up through the vents in his floor. He quickly reached down to grab as many as he could and brought them with him to the local animal shelter.  Each day he would leave the shelter and walk back to his neighborhood looking for other kittens to save. In all, he rescued eight kittens during the week Monica worked at the shelter.

After a week, Monica was reassigned to DES (Distribution of Emergency Supplies) across Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, sometimes driving as much as three and one-half hours to reach affected areas.

Red Cross volunteers like Monica respond to emergencies thousands of times each year. It is only through the generous donations of Americans that we can always be ready to respond whenever an emergency threatens.  Please consider donating today at redcross.org/neo.

Red Cross Volunteer Offers “Priceless” Service

By Chuck Victor, American Red Cross Volunteer

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of essays written by volunteers for the American Red Cross in the Northeast Ohio Region)

Chuck Victor

Throughout my adult years I have had a passion for volunteerism and helping others.  I prefer the behind the scenes work as opposed to the out front spokesperson.

During my working years, I had the opportunity to work with some great non-profit organizations and their boards; which taught me the value of the front line volunteer.

I was fortunate to retire at an early age but not yet ready to retire from being active. I had a colleague who I had always admired for their drive, commitment and dedication to the American Red Cross. I inquired as to how I could serve local needs through Red Cross.

That was over four years ago.  Today I apply my time and talents as a Local Disaster Action Team (DAT) Lead in responding to fires, shelter situations and unfortunately plane crashes.  As part of a team of initial responders to a disaster scene, I am able to help provide assistance to both those affected as well as first responders.

The job DAT members do is, as they say, priceless. We provide needed comfort and necessary reassurance to those who have just experienced tragedies that most hope they will never see. It goes beyond the monetary value of the financial assistance provided for housing and immediate needs.  The greatest value comes from a listening ear and a caring heart. Victims of fires, floods, storms and other such disasters appreciate someone who can hear what they say, even if they don’t have the words to express themselves. We provide direction and re-assurance.

Likewise, I am grateful for the opportunity to support our first responders by offering a hot cup of coffee or a snack when they need to know that their efforts are appreciated. I always make sure to thank them for their service and to remind them to be safe. Too often, they are taken for granted.

Why would anyone want to get a call at 2:30 in the morning and get out of bed on a cold winter night to respond to a fire and a family displaced? Trust me, when I say the reward derived from helping someone in need at his or her worst moment far exceeds the minor inconvenience of losing a little sleep.

Akron ResponseVolunteer Chuck Victor providing assistance to first responders at the scene of a plane crash in Akron, November, 2015

Disaster Action Team may not be your thing, But I would urge anyone with time on his or her hands and a desire to serve others to consider volunteering with the American Red Cross.  Many great opportunities are available.

(Chuck Victor has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for more than four years.  He is a resident of Tallmadge, and serves residents in the Summit, Portage and Medina Counties Chapter.)

To learn more about volunteer opportunities with the Red Cross, or to begin an application, visit our volunteer page or call 216-431-3328.  To help the Red Cross train volunteers and provide them with the resources needed to assist people who experience disasters, big and small, visit our Giving Day page.

North Randall Residents Receive Help and Hope Following Fire

More than 80 residents of an apartment complex in North Randall received help from Red Cross workers on Tuesday, February 14.

After firefighters responded to an apartment fire at the North Randall Estates, building inspectors had to determine whether it was safe to let residents back in their homes.

Red Cross workers opened a reception center in a Community Room, where waiting residents were given food and comfort.

“They calmed everyone down and walked us through what we need to do,” said resident Ricky Tunstall.  “They were sympathetic to our needs.”

Red Cross volunteers arrived on the scene shortly after the fire was reported mid-morning, and stayed well into the night, determining the needs of the residents, and trying to fill those needs.

Many residents were given immediate financial assistance.  The Red Cross distributed almost $7,000 to help people pay for a hotel room, or to buy food or other necessities.

One resident spent the night in a Red Cross shelter.

4 weeks after the fire, ongoing casework, disaster health services and disaster mental health services were being provided in 23 cases, with the cost of the operation more than $8,300.

On average, the Red Cross responds to three home fires every 24 hours in Northeast Ohio. While all Red Cross disaster assistance is free,  we rely on the generosity of donors to help us provide that assistance for disasters big and small.  Donations to help fund Red Cross disaster relief efforts can be made by calling 1-800-RED CROSS, or by logging onto redcross.org/neo. A text-to-give option is also available.  Text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.