The first time Janice Thomas went on a national deployment for the American Red Cross, she arrived by a Blackhawk helicopter with the National Guard. The mission was to respond to a storm in North Carolina, where the roads were severely flooded that she could not reach the Red Cross location otherwise. That Blackhawk adventure was the beginning of her relationship with Red Cross.
Since then Thomas has continued to respond to all types of disasters, from home fires to hurricanes, to help people start the process of rebuilding their lives. Just this past summer, Thomas volunteered for two multi-week virtual assignments assisting in the Red Cross recovery operation following Hurricane Laura. That’s in addition to coordinating Red Cross responses and supervising shelters after major events in Southeastern Pennsylvania, including the responses to Hurricane Isaias and a large apartment fire in Chester County.
“I have an app on my phone that if I hear the fire engines in my town, I always go to it to see is it a big fire,” Thomas said. “I always have my bag ready to go.”
A 13-year volunteer emergency medical technician, Thomas has always been active on the emergency frontline whenever and wherever people need help. That’s why when she saw an ad from the Red Cross recruiting disaster-response workforce four years ago, she did not hesitate to join.
Thomas is now the regional Mass Care Lead for the Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania Region. Her responsibilities include coordinating the resources from the regional shelter lead, the regional feeding lead, the regional distribution of emergency supply lead, and the reunification lead. When disasters strike, she coordinates those resources to maximize support for people impacted.
Thomas takes her responsibilities at the Red Cross seriously, and knows how much the small details can mean to families forced out of their homes unexpectedly. For example, she makes sure her team includes diapers in their response plans because families might not have time to grab them if they’re evacuating quickly.
“It is the little things like that that we’re just trying to improve all the time,” she said.
Thomas plans to volunteer for the Red Cross for as long as she can. Her next goal is to become a shelter manager, where she aspires to provide comfort to people who are potentially having the worst day of their life. Adding, “It is rewarding to know that you’re helping people when their life might be at its lowest point.”
Cathy Jensen has been a Red Cross volunteer for about six years, providing care and comfort to people immediately following a disaster in her Disaster Spiritual Care role. That’s why this spring, when the Red Cross formed a Virtual Family Assistance Center to support families struggling with loss and grief due to the Coronavirus pandemic, she knew it was the perfect fit.
“This program has special meaning to me as someone who has recovered from the COVID-19 virus. I have felt the personal grief this virus can cause. I am truly lucky to be alive, and I want to help alleviate others suffering due to this virus and let them know they are not alone. Along with all American Red Cross workers, I am here to provide comfort and care to those in need,” Jensen said.
Many families have experienced a disrupted bereavement and grief process due to restrictions related to COVID-19. Jensen, who lives in Philadelphia, is part of the team of specially trained Red Cross mental health, spiritual care and health services volunteers from across the country who are assigned to the Virtual Family Assistance Center. Outside of the Red Cross Jensen is a professional chaplain endorsed by Penn Presbyterian Medical Center where she currently works as a trauma chaplain.
“Disaster Spiritual Care seeks to rebuild spiritual hope and confidence in the lives of those affected by loss and devastation by providing compassionate and attentive listening, a calming presence, and additional resources that foster healing and recovery,” she said.
For months Jensen and the rest of the virtual team have been connecting with families over the phone to offer condolences, support and access to resources that may be available, providing support for virtual memorial services for families, including connecting with local faith-based community partners, hosting online classes to foster resilience and facilitate coping skills. They have also focused on sharing information and referrals to state and local agencies as well as other community organizations including legal resources for estate, custody, immigration or other issues.
“This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone, but especially for those who have lost a loved one due to COVID-19,” said Guy J. Triano, CEO of the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania Region. “Not only have these families experienced the unexpected passing of a loved one, but they are also facing additional challenges caused by this public health emergency. We want them to know that the Red Cross is here to provide compassion and support as they grieve.”
People can visit redcross.org/get-help to access a support hub with special virtual programs, information, referrals and services to support families in need. There is even a page within the site specifically dedicated to resources in Pennsylvania: https://www.redcross.org/virtual-family-assistance-center/pa-family-assistance-center.html The hub will also connect people to other community resources and other partners. People without internet access can call 833-492-0094 for help. All Family Assistance Center support will be provided virtually and is completely confidential and free.
As the leaves began to change and temperatures cooled, the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania was busy with nearly 20 regional workers assigned to major disasters like Hurricane Laura and the Western Wildfires, while still responding to the nation’s most frequent disaster, home fires.
Just in the first quarter of the organization’s fiscal year, (July-September) trained Red Cross disaster workers assisted with nearly 300 local disasters, mostly home fires in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. Hurricane Isaias also thrashed the region during this time period, leaving hundreds of people displaced by major flooding in August. In total, disaster workers provided emergency support in the form of temporary lodging and other immediate assistance to almost 1,500 residents impacted by disaster.
From July to October 7, when this article was written, local Red Crossers have volunteered about 130 times to support these major responses, either on the ground or virtually, with some people volunteering for multiple operations. That includes the 81 regional workers who supported the major sheltering and recovery efforts in our own backyard after Hurricane Isaias. Other disasters workers from our region have supported include Tropical Storm Hannah in Texas, Hurricane Laura in Texas and Louisiana, and the numerous wildfires that have ravaged parts of California and Oregon, and more.
Thank you to our incredible team of disaster workers for carrying out the Red Cross mission at home and across the country!
As I got on my flight to Louisiana on September 10, I knew I was one of thousands of Red Crossers from all over the country with hopes of making a difference on the ground this Hurricane Season. With wildfires raging in the West, and hurricanes and tropical storms still brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, I was heading to part of the country that had just been thrashed by one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S.
Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27, causing widespread devastation across east Texas and Louisiana. After two weeks in emergency shelters, some evacuees still didn’t have power at their homes, and many still had not been able to find out whether they still had a home to return to at all.
It is one thing to see heartbreak play out across a screen. It’s another thing to feel it radiating off a person as they relay the terror they felt riding out the storm and emerging with nothing but a few personal effects. The destruction I saw first-hand in Lake Charles was eye opening. In some places, it felt like whole neighborhoods had blue roofs because of the tarps covering up damage on every home. In other places, you might be lucky to find a few scraps of twisted metal on the side of the road, which indicated someone’s home had once stood there.
Perkins added, “It takes a lot of weight off my shoulders because I know when he comes, my son will have a safe place to sleep. I don’t have to worry about that.”
They had decided to start over in Baton Rouge. Perkins was using his days to job hunt and Gauthreaux got set up with a local doctor. Next, they planned to find a new place to live. They had a heathy baby boy in their arms during my second week there.
Another sense of hopefulness came from meeting all the Red Cross workers, mostly volunteers, who had left home with two bags and a facemask to travel to Louisiana for two or more weeks. I met Nancy Jodoin at the Baton Rouge shelters. She’s a nurse from Massachusetts who took three weeks of her own vacation time to volunteer with the Red Cross. Not only did she tend to medical needs, but I also watched her deliver hope and a caring reassurance to so many people navigating the toughest days of their lives.
Jodoin, like so many other Red Cross volunteers, went above and beyond to get to know the people she was serving and to form relationships so that she could help them on a deeper level. While she used her nursing skills, another Red Crosser I met was leaning on the skills he’d acquired in his 30-year career with the National Guard. Retiring as a colonel, Ed Bush had just left his old job with hopes of finding a new one that was also rewarding. Two months into his new role on the leadership team of the Louisiana Region of the Red Cross, he was in the thick of the recovery effort, acting as a liaison between the organization and local elected officials. He said he knew he made the right choice for this next phase of his career.
“You look to your left and to your right and the people you’re surrounded by are people of such character that you’re like, this is what I want to be a part of,” he said.
While we’ve made a lot of progress in the Hurricane Laura relief effort, there’s still much more work to do. Today, some of those impacted are still in emergency lodgings, more than a month after Laura made landfall. On Thursday night, the Red Cross and our partners provided 11,700 people with safe refuge. Over the past several weeks in response to Hurricane Laura, the Red Cross and our partners have provided 595,800 total overnight stays in emergency lodgings, and 620 Red Crossers are still supporting disaster relief efforts on the ground or virtually.
And that’s just the one disaster. When you look at the ongoing concurrent disaster response operations for Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Sally, and the Western Wildfires, the numbers are staggering. Over the past several weeks the Red Cross has provided 804,900 total overnight stays in emergency lodgings across multiple states: the most ever. We have served more than 2.1 million meals and snacks and distributed 279,100 relief items with the help of partners.
I feel honored to have played a small role in it along with so many incredible colleagues and partners that help us deliver our mission. As I write this, more than 20 Red Cross workers form our Southeastern Pennsylvania region are supporting major recovery operations on the ground and virtually, with more people heading out next week. It’s been a challenging season so far, but it brings me comfort to know that the Red Cross is delivering real, tangible help to thousands of people displaced by disasters as well as the intangible aspects of hope and comfort that we bring to these communities, even if it’s from six feet of social distance.
Did you observe International Cat Day (August 8) this year? How about International Dog Day on August 26? As we turn the corner on this month, let’s acknowledge the special value of our animal companions, who have been at our side for centuries. Nobody knows your cat or dog like you do, so it’s important to learn how to help them when something goes wrong. The American Red Cross has a course to teach you exactly that.
When you take the Red Cross’s Cat & Dog First Aid online training course, you’ll discover how to properly check your pet’s vital signs, practice preventive care, and recognize and provide first aid for your cat or dog.
Knowing how to provide a safe, healthy life for your pet is the best way to show you care. This 35-minute online course is perfect for pet owners, pet sitters, and pet shop employees, because you never know when an emergency might arise. Whether your pet is a cuddly lap cat or a highly trained working dog, the course will prepare you to help in a time of need.
Just like humans, cats and dogs can experience health crises like seizures, bleeding, breathing emergencies, and cardiac issues. The course covers those emergencies and more, and you’ll have the option to work through the material anytime and anywhere you want. You’ll also have continued access to the information in case you need to review it in the future.
The training was developed by a Red Cross team of scientific and medical experts, so you know you’re getting reliable information. Reviews from past students have been overwhelmingly positive. PawsitiveZen gave the course five stars: “As a walker, I wanted to have some basic first aid understanding. This course provided me with exactly what I was looking for, and I now have more confidence to care for other furry family members. I encourage anyone who lives or works with pets to take this course.”
Tbou also gave the course a five-star rating: “It was much easier than a whole day of in-person learning. It’s self-paced and easy to understand, and it will help me be a better volunteer.”
A $25 course fee and a 35-minute investment of time—from the comfort of your home—is a small price for ensuring the safety of your furry family member. The pet-saving skills you’ll acquire will be invaluable. For info on the go, consider downloading the Red Cross’s award-winning Pet Safety app as well. That way you can access safety tips directly from your phone.
The Red Cross values the well-being of your four-legged best friends, and this training tool can make you a better pet owner. When your cat or dog is in trouble, it’s hard to know what to do. This course and safety app will arm you with the skills and knowledge to handle a pet health emergency.
September is National Preparedness Month and in light of recent widespread flooding from Hurricane Isaias, the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania encourages everyone to get ready for emergencies.
We are going through a challenging time as we navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time, and that is why we must prepare a little differently for other disasters that may affect our community. It might be difficult to think about, but with several hurricanes and tropical storms making landfall in the U.S. already this summer, and one severely impacting the Philadelphia area, being prepared for disasters is of utmost importance for people of all ages.
Disasters can cause sudden challenges like knocking out power, blocking roads, disrupting the response of emergency services, and causing stores and pharmacies to close for an extended period. Preparing for emergencies is a little different this year, but the three basic action steps remain the same for everyone: Build a Kit, Make a Plan and Be Informed. Assemble two kits of emergency supplies (a stay-at-home kit and an evacuation kit) and a one-month supply of prescription medication. Include personal hygiene items, cleaning and disinfectant supplies and cloth face coverings. Some supplies may be hard to get due to the pandemic, and availability may worsen in a disaster, so start gathering supplies now. Download the free Red Cross Emergency Appfor safety tips (search “American Red Cross” in app stores).
Tips for making your plan
Disasters can force people to leave their homes, even in areas under stay-at-home mandates. By having an emergency plan your family can react quickly if a disaster strikes.
Ask friends or relatives outside your area if you would be able to stay with them.
Check and see if they have any COVID-19 symptoms or have people in their home at higher risk for serious illness. If they do, make other arrangements.
Check with hotels, motels and campgrounds to see if they are open and if pets are allowed.
Due to the pandemic, stay current on advice and restrictions from your state and local public health authorities as it may affect your actions, available resources and shelter facilities.
Download the free Red Cross Emergency App for weather alerts and information on what to do before, during and after disasters.
Build confidence by learning simple steps you can take now, to help prepare and protect your family. Hosted by the American Red Cross, Be Red Cross Ready is a FREE preparedness education curriculum for adults taught by certified presenters via any virtual platform. The program is designed to help people understand, prepare for and respond appropriately to disasters. To sign up for one of six free online preparedness sessions visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/free-disaster-preparedness-presentation-tickets-117563458469?aff=efbneb
September 8 -Lunch time lesson (30 minutes) from 12-12:30pm
September 9 – (1 hour) from 2-3pm
September 16 -Lunch time lesson (30 minutes) from 12-12:30pm
September 17 –(1 hour) from 2-3pm
September 22 –(1 hour) from 11am-12pm
September 24 -Lunch time lesson (30 minutes) 12-12:30pm
From her job development work in Kentucky as a college student, to her efforts in Michigan to lend a hand with the Flint water crisis, to her travel to New Orleans to help communities rebuild after the floods, Mary Harper has never lacked energy for humanitarian causes.
So it came as no surprise to her former colleagues at the City of Philadelphia that her retirement years would involve service. For 21 years, Harper oversaw the city’s mental illness and addiction treatment program; she retired on August 31, 2019, and by September she was already volunteering with the American Red Cross.
“Volunteering for the community has always been in my DNA,” Harper says.
In less than a year with the Red Cross, Harper has contributed to the Philadelphia chapter in numerous ways, including in her roles as a service associate for the Disaster Action Team and as a resiliency program lead for the Service to the Armed Forces. She loves both of those positions.
As a Disaster Action Team member, Harper recalls being dispatched to an apartment fire this past June. When she arrived on the scene, she immediately recognized that some residents impacted by the fire were medically fragile, while others had mental challenges.
“The scene was chaotic,” she says. “People were having difficulties navigating how to go to the hotel or use the taxi voucher.”
One resident was having a complete meltdown, Harper recalls. With her experience in mental health services, she approached the frantic resident, calmed him down and comforted him, and explained the ways that the Red Cross was able to help him.
Then came a turn of the events. “What really warmed my heart,” Harper says, “was to see the higher-functioning people starting to support the lower-functioning people. For me, that is [the essence of my role]. We help them, and then they help themselves.”
Harper is equally proud of what she and her team have achieved with the Resiliency Program for the Service to the Armed Forces. As a senior volunteer lead, Harper helps organize the COVID-19 resiliency workshop program. This is a series of self-care activities and support group conversations designed to help local returning veterans and their family members form communities and find the support they need to cope with the extraordinary challenges of the pandemic. So far Harper has helped organize more than 142 Zoom hours for these workshops.
“One thing I love about the Red Cross is how we respect and show real empathy and support to people. It’s more than just saying ‘I am so sorry’ to people,” she said. “Instead, we offer real and useful services to the communities.”
Harper lives with her daughter and grandchildren in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where the coronavirus has transformed her household into a home school, a home camp, and a theater for daily talent shows. She plans to volunteer for the American Red Cross as long as she can. Why? “The Red Cross keeps me grounded. It keeps me connected to the community.”
Minor flooding is nothing new in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but as Jameelah Shaw watched Hurricane Isaias move up the East Coast on the news earlier this month, she was still caught off guard. On August 4th she witnesses floodwater “rushing in” from the next street over, and before she knew it, her Philadelphia neighborhood, Eastwick, was submerged.
“I told my daughter, hurry up and move your car. She moved her car, when she walked back, when she moved her car the water was at her feet, when she came back it was here, waistline,” Shaw said.
Even with an eye on the local news and an eye on the sky, Shaw said the flooding happened so quickly she didn’t have time to save her home or belongings.
“It started about 1:00, about 1:15 my whole rec room, laundry room, garage, up my steps, the second step from the top landing all was underwater. My electric meter, my solar panel meter, everything was under water, in a matter of 15 minutes,” she said.
Shaw was one of hundreds of people in Southeastern Pennsylvania to be forced out of their homes by the contaminated water that week, and one of about 350 people to stay in local Red Cross shelters.
In response to the flooding caused by Hurricane Isaias, the Red Cross provided a cumulative 3,012 overnight stays for those displaced, mostly from Philadelphia, Delaware and later Chester counties. More than 100 Red Cross workers supported the relief effort, which included serving more than 3,500 meals and snacks together with partners, distributing more than 2,000 emergency items, and conducting more than 1,400 health services contacts for COVID-19 safety. Altogether, the Red Cross assisted more than 650 people with recovery support, in what ended up being the region’s largest disaster response operation since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Shaw said because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she couldn’t stay with family, so she came to the Red Cross. She said having a safe place to stay in the short term took a lot off her mind enabling her to plan for a long-term solution.
“We had nowhere to go. And you guys came in, Red Cross came in, you guys put us in hotels, even with our animals. You fed us three times a day,” Shaw said.
August 19th marks World Photography Day and we want to pay homage to one of the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s wonderful volunteer photographers, who has captured the essence of the Red Cross for the past four years.
James Jones has volunteered his time to work as a volunteer photographer since 2016 and has stood out as an exceptional volunteer. Jones has poured hard work and positivity into his time at the Red Cross, capturing events like Day at the Capitol, Red Ball, Camp Save-a-Life, Sound the Alarm events, and the annual Red Cross House picnic. I’ve had the pleasure to sit down and talk with Mr. Jones about his experience as a volunteer, his photography hobby outside of volunteering, and seeing some of his work from major Red Cross events.
Miriana Antenucci (MA): What initially got you interested in photography?
James Jones (JJ):I wanted a new hobby after retiring from the federal government and I was looking for something to get into. I became somewhat of an enthusiast with photography and quickly started upgrading equipment and getting involved in volunteer programs.
MA: How did you start volunteering with the Red Cross?
JJ: I started with another organization as a volunteer photographer and found the Red Cross online back in January of 2016. This looks like a great opportunity to expand his horizons and get involved as a volunteer photographer. I also do photography for family gatherings, however, Red Cross was primarily another opportunity I was looking for to expand my horizons in the area of volunteer photography. I went online and found an opportunity for photographers and videographers. I signed up, did all the paperwork and was accepted. My first assignment was Sound the Alarm.
MA: What did you like about photographing these events?
JJ: For me personally, I’m always trying to capture the true essence of the environment and people I’m photographing. The Day at the Capitol was a very unique experience. I haven’t been to Harrisburg so it was a unique experience from a personal standpoint and it was nice to interact and meet the other people from the other Red Cross chapters that were there at the State Capitol, and to see the show of support.
MA: For new volunteers interested in photography what would you want them to know?
JJ: To get involved. To take pride in the images they capture that display what the American Red Cross embodies.
MA: Is there anything else you would like the readers to know about?
JJ: I am prior military. I served in the navy. That’s one of the things that helps me be who I am now was because I had that opportunity to travel abroad and see a lot of things and take pictures.
I was stationed on the USS John F Kennedy aircraft carrier that’s now retired in Philadelphia. I had the chance to go to most of the Mediterranean countries, Italy, Greece, France, the North Atlantic, most of the Caribbean. I also served in the reserve program and did some more additional traveling and so I was able to go to Germany and Canada for different assignments. It’s all a part of my past experiences now. Now I’m retired and laid back. I’m trying to contribute to a good cause like American Red Cross
MA: Do you also practice photography outside the Red Cross?
JJ: Yes! I do photography for family gatherings and my own personal enjoyment. When I travel and since I have been retired for a number of years now, I have gone to South Africa, Canada, different places around the country and I always take my camera with me to take pictures to share with others.
MA: What is your favorite subject to capture?
JJ: Favorite subject is a little bit of everything. Like the jack of all trades and like to dabble in portrait photography, Macro photography, landscape photography, a little bit of all types of photography. I’m not really trained as a true photographer, so it gives me the opportunity to dabble in everything. I have taken a lot of different courses for photography both online, through the Photographic Society of America, and through a number of camera clubs. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve also done a number different courses in and around the area as well.
MA: Among your work, which one is your favorite and why?
JJ: I’d say Red Ball, because everyone gets dressed up and it’s a red carpet type of thing. I sort of play the role of capturing the ideal image of these people that are all dressed up and are looking great on this special occasion.
I also would like to say the Red Cross Annual Children’s Holiday Party Event to my list of photography volunteer assignments. I enjoyed photographing this event just as much or more than doing the Red Cross House. It’s the smiles on the kid’s faces … that make my day when I photograph this event.
It has been an absolute pleasure to sit down with Mr. Jones and view the pieces he has taken throughout the years. In his attendance of the Red Cross events, Mr. Jones has not only captured the essence of the joy and support that remain present within the community, but also embodied the spirit of a Red Cross volunteer. We hope that in sharing his experience, Mr. Jones not only serves as an inspiration for future photographers, but also future Red Cross volunteers.
On August 19th we recognize World Humanitarian Day, a day for celebrating the bravery and dedication of volunteers around the world. The American Red Cross is the country’s largest humanitarian network and volunteers are the heart of what we do. Every day, American Red Cross humanitarians bring comfort and immediate assistance to those affected by disaster, provide services for donation of life-saving blood and convalescent plasma for COVID 19 treatment, support the military, their families, and veterans, train and certify community members in First Aid and CPR/AED and so much more.
“I am surrounded by humanitarians at the American Red Cross. I see the selflessness in each home fire response, at each blood drive, and in all our efforts to support our nation’s heroes. I’m proud to lead such an inspiring group of people,” said Guy J. Triano, CEO of the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania Region.
For Larry Daly, volunteerism is in his blood. In 1993, after serving as a Volunteer Firefighter in Abington, PA, he joined the Red Cross, saying it was a “perfect fit”. Daly has served in missions nationally and locally, providing immediate Red Cross assistance for those who have suffered a fire, flood, or life changing disaster. This past May, a 40-unit apartment in the Tioga Section of Philadelphia caught fire. When called to staff the shelter, Larry did not hesitate. In this time of COVID 19, the shelter was inside a hotel, instead of a gym or community center, for better social distancing. The trained COVID Shelter Team stepped right up to keep the people in the hotel and volunteers safe. When asked about volunteering in this pandemic, Larry modestly said “someone has to help”. This is true heroism and sacrifice to help others.
Many volunteer because they want to give back to their community, including Liz Von Baldas. After retirement, she wanted to feel useful and contribute to society in some way. Liz joined the Red Cross in 2016, and especially loves her work with Disaster Services . “It is one of the best things I do. Not only do I feel good helping people out after a disaster, I continue to challenge myself by learning new things,” Liz said. When participating in the Home Fire Campaign installing smoke alarms, Liz says a special memory was installing a bed-shaker smoke alarm, for a 3-year-old girl who could not hear. When these devices detect smoke or fire, instead of just beeping loudly, they shake the bed they’re attached to alerting the person to danger.
Larry and Liz personify volunteer commitment to the mission of the American Red Cross in Southeastern Pennsylvania, preventing and alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies. To them and all of our selfless volunteers, we say “Thank you!”