By: Huanjia Zhang
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.”