Author Archives: Marcia Antipa

“I Want To Do That!”

Bay Area Clara Barton Honoree Uses her Journalism Skills To Tell The Red Cross Story

Barbara Wood on assignment in Bayou Gauche Island, Louisiana during Hurricane Ida in September 2021.

Barbara Wood is a longtime American Red Cross volunteer from San Mateo County.  She was recently given the Clara Barton Honor Award for Meritorious Volunteer Leadership for the Red Cross Bay Area Chapter.  It’s the highest honor of volunteer achievement at the chapter level.

Barbara says she was inspired by her aunt Vinnie Bieberdorf, a Red Cross volunteer for more than 50 years.  “She responded after (Hurricane) Katrina, she was managing a mega-shelter. She responded after 9/11. She did all of these things and I said ‘I want to do that!’”

Barbara is a retired professional newspaper reporter, who has served in many positions with the Red Cross.  Now, she is a public affairs volunteer, reporting on the Red Cross efforts to help those affected by wildfires, floods, tornadoes and other disasters.

The Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region Communications Director Cari Dighton says, “She has 30 total deployments under her belt, and she continually brings that knowledge back to the region – co-instructing courses, mentoring our new communications volunteers … and writing multiple, heartwarming stories per year.”

Barbara and her husband raised three children in San Mateo County.  She joined the Red Cross in 2006, volunteering for work close to home.  Once her youngest child had her driver’s license, Barbara began volunteering for the Red Cross at disasters across the country.

Her first deployment was to Hurricane Ike, a powerful cyclone that hit Texas in 2008.  She remembers the camaraderie of living and working with first responders and other community partners in Texarkana and on Galveston Island. 

“There was a huge mess tent where you’d go through a cafeteria line and there was a massive amount of food because firefighters eat a lot. The National Guard was there, there were firefighters and utility workers, and the Salvation Army.”

Barbara’s deployments have taken her all over California and the U.S.

Barbara embraces wildfire shelter residents during the Oak Fire response in Central California, July 2022. Photo by Sivani Babu/American Red Cross

“I went to Santa Rosa after the Tubbs fire. I was in Oroville after the Camp Fire, and in 2018, they were looking for volunteers to go to Hawaii so I got permission from my job to go after the volcano erupted on the Big Island of Hawaii.”

Barbara says she loved working in the shelters and providing other services to those affected by disasters – but as a professional journalist, she realized her skills could be better put to use in Public Affairs.

“She proudly tells everyone she knows that her ‘volunteer job’ is being a Red Cross storyteller,” says Dighton.  “She is incredibly talented and travels all over our region and across the country to support the Red Cross mission.”

This hard working journalist and volunteer combined her two loves: professional writing and helping others. After every deployment, Barbara would write a firsthand account in the form of a column about her Red Cross experiences for her newspaper. On her deployment to Hawaii, she met a group of USGS experts from Menlo Park. “I called my editor and said, ‘Can I stay an extra three days if I write a story about this USGS geologist who is a volcano specialist and I’ll have a story for you?’ So they let me do that.”

Barbara has brought her sharp journalism skills to multiple disaster deployments, writing stories about volunteers and shelter clients. She illustrates her articles and social media posts with her own thoughtful, heartwarming photos.

Eventually, Barbara retired from journalism, but not from her volunteer job as a Red Cross storyteller.  “When I think back over my life about things I’ve done as a reporter, and things I’ve done with the Red Cross, I think the Red Cross things are in many ways more memorable.”

Barbara tears up as she remembers her experiences.

“I sometimes say I think the Red Cross is kind of like a placebo. When you show up someplace, people say “oh look, it’s the Red Cross! And they instantly feel better before we do anything. And whatever we can do to help them, we do.”

Barbara urges anyone who wants to make a difference to volunteer for the Red Cross. “It doesn’t matter what your skills or interests are; there’s a Red Cross job for everybody.”

As this article was written, Barbara was already off on her next deployment: the Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park in Central California.  Once again, she is telling the stories of the Red Cross volunteers and the people they help.

Please click on the links below to read just a handful of Barbara’s remarkable Red Cross stories:

A First Deployment: Telling The Red Cross Story During a Wildfire

By Marcia Antipa

Marcia Antipa on assignment as a public affairs volunteer during the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe, California in 2021.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer for the American Red Cross during a disaster – take a look back with me at my first deployment experience – to the Caldor Fire in California.

I am a Public Affairs volunteer with the Northern California Coastal Region. After retiring from a career in broadcast journalism, I now tell stories for the Red Cross.

Late last August, I received the call.  I would deploy the next day to the Caldor Fire.  I admit, my adrenaline spiked a bit when I got that phone call, but I was excited to put my career skills and Red Cross training to work.

My first stop was Sacramento, and the offices of the  California Gold Country Region.  This was the  headquarters for the Red Cross response to the Caldor Fire and it was a hive of activity.  Staffing Services, Public Affairs and seasoned disaster volunteers all gave me valuable advice. Then I hit the road for my assignment: a massive Red Cross shelter in Reno, Nevada.

Growing up in Northern California, I’d spent many vacations in the Sierra Nevada. But as I rounded the last turn on Highway 80 and looked across the Lake Tahoe Basin, a murky curtain of smoke blocked the usually stunning views.  

In Reno, I arrived to more smoky skies and 95-degree weather. Armed with my notebook, pen and cell phone, I stepped inside the cavernous Reno-Sparks Convention Center. It was filled with hundreds of cots, evacuees, and volunteers in red vests working nonstop to meet the needs of the shelter residents. 

In no time, one of the volunteers walked up and greeted me with a smile. I knew I had found my first story.

Walter Roberts, Junior is a volunteer from Missouri, with Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services. Walter wears a lanyard that is covered with pins – all commemorating the disasters where he has volunteered for the Red Cross. In 2005, he deployed to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

“I have never left New Orleans in many ways,” he said. “I have worn a fleur-de-lis around my neck for 16 years in remembrance of Katrina and the difficulties, the hardships that people faced.”

This time, Walter was working with fire evacuees. His job was to help people stay calm in an extremely stressful situation, “defusing, deescalating tension. Everyone here – staff, management, has the positive right attitude, focusing on serving the residents.”

Deborah Towers, Disaster Health Services Volunteer

I then met volunteer Deborah Towers, a retired nurse who seemed to be everywhere at once: at the bedside of medically-fragile shelter residents, checking in volunteer doctors, or giving a job to a newly-arrived volunteer nurse.  Deborah joined the Red Cross four years ago. Since then she has deployed to hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters.

“We get compliment after compliment about the love that we exude during an emergency. They feel so well-cared-for and so well-provided-for, that it’s just an amazing experience.”

Sometimes it takes a village to meet the needs of a shelter resident. Take the case of Russell Barton.  In the 1960’s, Russell answered his country’s call and served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. When he arrived at the Reno shelter, his country, and the Red Cross repaid this veteran for his service. The shelter provided Russell with a cot, blankets, food, water restrooms and showers. He told me, “It reminds me of boot camp, but without the bunk beds!”

But Russell had other critical needs. That’s where a team from the Veterans Administration – including a nurse, a pharmacist and a social worker – stepped in. They arranged for supplemental oxygen and prescription medications.

Every day I witnessed acts of kindness just like that. Two veteran Red Cross volunteers who had been evacuated from their own home spent the day cleaning cots, handing out laundry bags, or simply talking with people who needed a friendly face.  Another volunteer organized a talent show among the residents to boost morale.

Then one afternoon, the good news swept through the shelter: fire officials had lifted the mandatory evacuation order for South Lake Tahoe.

Whole families quickly packed up their belongings and headed out. Those with cars were on the road within minutes.  Others lined up for a free ride home aboard a regional transit bus. Red Cross volunteers gave all the evacuees a boxed lunch and water for the trip. One bus rider was Reed Wells of South Lake Tahoe. He had a joyous reunion with his little dog, “Peepers,” who had been cared for at a local animal shelter.

Caldor Fire shelter resident, Reed Wells

Many people stopped to thank the Red Cross volunteers who gave them shelter, food and comfort during a frightening time. I heard one man say simply, “I love you,” to the workers.

The next day, a Public Affairs colleague and I drove to South Lake Tahoe to see how the Red Cross was helping those who returned home. The lake was blanketed with smoke, and teams of firefighters still headed to the front line, but people were happy to be back.

Two Red Cross volunteers handed out water, meals and snacks from a large truck and people stopped by to share their incredible stories. Jeffrey Grell said his house was in pretty good shape – except there was a bear swimming in his pool!

As we cope with another fire season, I will remember these stories, of the people who survived last summer’s fires, and the Red Cross workers who helped them. Despite those butterflies on the first day, I was not alone on this deployment. Many Red Cross staff and volunteers had my back – keeping me fed, sheltered and well-informed. But my secret weapon was the dynamic duo of Dan Halyburton of Texas, and Kim Mailes of Missouri – two seasoned, talented, Public Affairs volunteers who welcomed me onto their team. 

Now my bag is packed and I am ready to deploy again.

To find out how you can help during a disaster, visit: redcross.org.

The Cost of War

Red Cross teen volunteers spread awareness about the impact of armed conflict

By Marcia Antipa

“It’s just better for humanity that everyone knows about it.”

IHL In the Bay, a Youth Action Campaign team from the East Bay.

Bay Area teen Janaki Rakesh is talking about International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a set of rules developed under the Geneva Conventions designed to limit the impacts of armed conflict.

Rakesh and 40 other students in the Northern California Coastal Region are studying IHL through the Red Cross Youth Action Campaign (YAC).   

Kimberly Cui says she signed up for YAC because  “I just wanted to explore more about what other people in the world were facing.”

In past years, the campaign has focused on the effects of war on healthcare workers and on education. This year’s theme is cultural property.

“The destruction of cultural property’s permanent, so when it’s damaged or when it’s destroyed it has a direct impact on that particular community,” says Sarina Vij, Coordinator for the Bay Area YAC.

Vij says cultural property “is something that is of great importance to a particular community. It could be a statue; it could be a monument. “

For example, she cites the Taliban’s destruction in 2001 of two giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan that were 1600 years old.  

Some teens are surprised to learn that the Red Cross is involved in International Humanitarian Law.

Harshita Gabri says, “Initially when I heard about Red Cross I thought of it as an organization that was in charge of blood donations.”

Priyanka Supraja Balaji

“Before I knew anything about the details about Red Cross, I always thought of it as an organization that provides humanitarian aid,” says Priyanka Supraja Balaji. “I wanted to be a part of spreading that mission and really being one of the people who is helping others.”

And Rubikka Satchidanantham says, “I thought this campaign was the perfect opportunity. Not only am I able to learn more about IHL, but I’m also able to educate others.”

Janaki Rakesh said she is passionate about teaching others about IHL, because she has followed the story of Malala Yousafzai. Malala is an outspoken advocate for girls’ education who survived being shot by the Taliban, and won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17.

“I read all of Malala’s books. She’s a girl from Pakistan. Her life was destroyed by war.”

The YAC teams spread awareness about IHL through Instagram posts and Zoom game nights, where participants answer questions about war and cultural property.

Sreekrishna Gelle posted on the group’s Instagram feed about a firebombing during World War Two, “where American and British bombers basically flattened the entire city of Dresden in Germany which was a center of cultural, architectural and artistic history.”

 “I have never seen a more creative group of individuals,” says Sarina Vij. “They are very good at coming up with different ways to navigate and problem-solve. “

One team held an online scavenger hunt, sharing food, clothing, and souvenirs from other countries. Victoria Liu says that made her appreciate her own Chinese heritage – and what cultural property means to others. “It represents a lot about people and if you destroy these properties, you’re destroying peoples’ identities.”

And the work doesn’t end when the games do. “We used feedback forms and heard back from people that they want to make it more engaging,” says Shivani Ravindra. “So we’re working on improving those for the next event.”

YAC presentations are all virtual for now,  but team member Tejasvini Ramesh says that is their secret weapon.

“We’re able to spread awareness about it a lot quicker than we would through in-person events because with the power of social media we can reach lots of people from different parts of the world.”

Beyond teaching their classmates about IHL, several teens say they find the concepts comforting.

“During war, we think it’s all chaotic,” says Charisse Zou, “but I found it really fascinating how there were actually laws to protect the people and cultural property.”

“It gives me a really safe feeling,” says  Priyanka Supraja Balaji. “Things that have such a personal attachment to you like a place of worship or anything like that won’t get targeted.”

Anyone can learn about IHL and take part in the teams’ online events.  Just visit:

https://ihlinthebay.wixsite.com/ihlinthebay

https://www.redcross.org/humanityinwar/international-humanitarian-law-youth-action-campaign.html