Author Archives: Barbara Wood

Volunteering for the Red Cross: a life-changing experience

Volunteers from all over the country are working together, providing food, shelter and relief supplies to those affected by severe weather across California. Many are experienced volunteers and have deployed several times. But some joined the Red Cross not so long ago and are on their first deployment. This experience can be both challenging and  life-changing, and it’s a great opportunity to find mentorship and build camaraderie. 

Here are some of their stories: 

Photo by Barbara Wood / American Red Cross

Kevin Wiramihardja: “I want to make the world better” 
 
Kevin Wiramihardja started volunteering for the American Red Cross in Boston in January, but by mid-March he had already found himself in California, ready to go to work in a shelter for those displaced by the series of storms that have been slamming the state.   
 
As he waited to be assigned to a shelter Kevin, who is in his 30’s, explained his real passion is to try to figure out how organizations and businesses can improve their communications.  To that end, he has taken a year off work to research and volunteer for the Red Cross. He is signed up as a “volunteer services feedback specialist,” trying to help the Boston chapter with things like volunteer surveys and what is done with the information gathered.   

To help him in that work, Kevin said he wants to learn as much about the Red Cross as he can, taking classes and working as a local responder to home fires, as well as volunteering to work 12-hour shifts in a shelter.  “I want to make the world better,” he said.   

On Wednesday, Kevin was hard at work on his second day of working in the Seven Trees Community Center shelter in San Jose. He said he appreciated that shelter manager Patrick McKenna is a good supervisor and “answers all my questions. I am grateful for that.”

So far, Kevin said, he found the work a “very life-changing experience.”   


Aidin, Juana and Cody: Help comes from the heart 

Photo by Barbara Wood / American Red Cross

Aidin Shahi is a true believer in the mission of the Red Cross. He isn’t yet 40, but he’s been a Red Cross volunteer for 19 years, at first as part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent in his native Iran and for the past 10 years as part of the American Red Cross. 
 
Aidin, a resident of the Winnetka neighborhood of Los Angeles, is one of over a dozen Red Cross volunteers helping Monterey County in the evacuation shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville. That number of volunteers has swelled since Aidin arrived because he’s signed up at least four new Red Cross volunteers in less than four days at the shelter.   

Aiden helped those who told him they’d like to join the Red Cross by shepherding them through the process online. “I cannot help everyone in the entire world, but I can help the people in need,” Aidin says.  “The best organization for helping people in need is the Red Cross. And it’s free and it comes heart to heart.”   

At least two of the volunteers Aiden helped sign up are already hard at work helping the residents of the shelter. Juana Uribe, a Watsonville resident who speaks fluent Spanish as well as English, helped serve food, clean up and whatever else was needed until the Shelter Resident Transition team asked her to help translate for Spanish speaking shelter residents the team is helping to figure out what they’ll do once they leave the shelter.   

Juana, a former office manager for a church who is currently looking for a new job, says she asked Aiden about joining the Red Cross because “I like the labor the Red Cross does.”   

“I love customer service,” she said. “I love to help people and bring hope to someone, even with a friendly face. Sometimes a child needs someone to approach them and smile at them. I just like to help those in need.”  

A second new volunteer, Cody Mortensen, has a unique perspective because he is staying in the evacuation shelter after the tent he had been living in was destroyed in the storm. The bar/restaurant he works at has also been shut down because of storm damage. Cody has helped with everything in the shelter from emptying garbage to setting up cots and serving food to the residents.   

Lucy Aita, a new volunteer that is ‘all in’ 

Photo by Barbara Wood / American Red Cross

American Red Cross volunteer Lucy Aita says she will never forget helping the family of a 93-year-old Florida woman who hadn’t been heard from for two weeks following Hurricane Ian last year. Lucy, a resident of Monroe, New Jersey, and fellow members of the Red Cross reunification team found the woman at her home, but without electricity or a working phone. The Red Crossers lent her a phone and helped her make calls. “We stayed with her for three hours while she called people,” Lucy said. The woman’s friends and relatives “were in tears on the phone. They thought she was gone,” Lucy said. “That was very touching.”   

Lucy, who has been a Red Cross volunteer for only 11 months, is currently on her fifth national deployment, working in an evacuation shelter in California helping those affected by the current series of storms slamming the state. She is trained to help with sheltering, feeding, and driving a Red Cross emergency response vehicle as well as reunification. At home, Lucy heads up the local teams who respond to home fires, and in her region, she oversees feeding.   

“I wanted to join the Red Cross since I was a teenager,” Lucy said.  But busy with life, school and as an only child with older parents who needed her help, Lucy put it off until after her mother passed away at the age of 97. Covid and health problems delayed Lucy for a bit longer, but last year she was finally able to realize her teen dream. “That was it – I was in there full time,” she said.   

Disaster Mental Health Team: tips to improve coping skills after repeat disasters

photo by Barbara Wood / American Red Cross

American Red Crosser Jeff Roediger has some tips for coping with the anxiety and other effects of stress caused by the series of severe atmospheric river storms (currently 11 and counting) that have slammed California this winter. 

Roediger says that events such as disasters and evacuations, especially those that occur more than once, “are mentally, physically and spiritually draining.” Such events can create a sense of loss or grief over things already lost, fear for life or safety, even hopelessness, he says.

Among the thoughts and behaviors that can appear, Roediger says, are anger, cognitive difficulties such as not being able to think clearly, racing thoughts, the desire to isolate ones self, or bad coping skills such as using drugs or alcohol or risky behavior.

Here are some of Roediger’s tips:

1  –  Keep in touch with family and friends.  
“Talk to somebody about the event. Don’t bottle it up,” Roediger, a professional counselor from South Carolina on his 30th disaster response assignment, says.

“The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it,” he says.  “It becomes part of our life and it no longer it has power over us.”  

2 -If you know someone who has suffered from a disaster Listen to what the person has to say.
”Just let them talk,” Roediger says. “People want to be heard.”  

3  – Distract yourself 
If you find yourself unable to stop thinking about the disaster, find something else to do Roediger says.  Listen to music, draw, write, go for a walk, make a gratitude list.

4 – If you have suffered a loss in a disaster, make a list of things you must do to recover.
“Let the list sit for a time and then prioritize each item. Lists help move focus to the future, not the past,” he says. 

5 – Anyone stressed by a disaster can ask to speak to a Red Cross counselor, free of charge.
The Red Cross also partners with the free SAMHSA Disaster Distress helpline, where a trained counselor is available 24 hours a day at (800) 985-5990. 

When they needed shelter, the Red Cross was there 

Photos and reporting by Barbara Wood/Red Cross volunteer 

Red Cross volunteer Debbie Torres of San Mateo, California, talks to Jose Galvan Alvarez and his grandson Kingston in a Red Cross shelter.
Photo by Barbara Wood/Red Cross volunteer 

The Galvan Alvarez family was sound asleep in their South San Francisco apartment in the early hours of January 10 when they were jolted awake as the entire roof blew off their apartment building.  

“At first we thought it was an earthquake,” Jose Galvan Alvarez said, holding his nine-month-old grandson, Kingston, in a Red Cross shelter at the San Mateo County Event Center. Water from one of the series of major storms that have been pounding California started pouring in through ceiling light fixtures, he said. 

The family called the fire department, which quickly responded and referred them to the nearby Red Cross shelter that had been opened to provide refuge from the storm for all who needed it. The family arrived at about 4 a.m. and were provided supplies, such as diapers, food and toiletries, as well as a portable cot for Kingston and warm beds for the rest of the family. In the morning they had warm showers and breakfast.  

“The Red Cross has been excellent,” Jose said. “I’ve got nothing but nice things to say about the Red Cross.” Jose said he had also been helped by the Red Cross years ago, when he had a fire in his apartment. Jose then excused himself to grab a broom and dustpan and clean up around his family’s cots. “The Red Cross is helping, so I can help, too,” he said. 

The atmospheric rivers that pounded California for weeks, with floodwaters and damage remaining long after the storms have subsided. At one point there were as many as 100,000 people in California under evacuation orders or warnings.

Now that the skies have cleared, individuals and families are returning home to evaluate their path back towards recovery. Hundreds of Red Cross disaster workers are continuing to safely shelter those in need, deliver hot food and relief supplies to impacted neighborhoods, and provide much-needed emotional support.

For many, the road to recovery will be long – and the Red Cross will stand with survivors in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to rebuild their lives. You can help people by:

  • Making a financial gift to California Storms and Floods. Donations for Disaster Relief enable the Red Cross to prepare for, respond to and help people recover from disasters big and small. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS, or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
  • Sharing Red Cross updates through your social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn).
  • Becoming a Red Cross volunteer: http://tinyurl.com/ARC2023FloodsApplication

“It’s time for me to give back,” Red Cross Volunteer of the Year says

By Barbara Wood/Red Cross volunteer

Marcia Antipa interviewing a Red Cross volunteer in a shelter in Reno, Nevada during the Caldor Fire in 2021.

Although she became a Red Cross volunteer in November 2019, just months before COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives, Marin County’s Marcia Antipa jumped in with both feet and quickly became involved in Red Cross activities throughout the Northern California Coastal Region.

This year, Marcia, who is retired from a career in broadcast news, was named the region’s Volunteer of the Year for her contributions, which include serving as an active member of the regional communications team, acting as the emcee for volunteer award ceremonies throughout the region, and deploying to Reno for the Caldor Fire in 2021.

Her award nomination describes Marcia as, “the first person to jump in when an opportunity or a need arises. She is absolutely dedicated to telling the Red Cross story not only during blue skies, but she is also dedicated to ensuring that information about vital relief and recovery efforts is shared in a timely and accurate manner with both internal and external audiences during disasters.”

Marcia’s first volunteer experience with the Red Cross was actually more than 30 years ago, in 1991 after the Oakland Hills Fire destroyed more than 3,000 housing units, killing 25 people and injuring 150 others.

“I was in between broadcast journalism jobs and raising our baby when the Oakland Hills firestorm hit,” Marcia said. “It was one of the most terrifying things we had seen in the Bay Area, and shocking really.”

“To think about that now with some of the horrific fires that we’ve had — Paradise, Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, just whole communities going up — it doesn’t seem as shocking now. But back then, that wasn’t happening,” Marcia said.

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

In the aftermath of the fire, Marcia said she noticed the Red Cross was helping. “It’s like Mr. Rogers said: His mother always told him ‘Look for the helpers. When you hear a siren, when you hear about bad news, don’t worry, look for the helpers because they’re going to be there. Well that’s the Red Cross.”

 “So I thought, OK it’s time for me to give back.”

Marcia said she was quickly trained and sent to a service center to help those affected by the fire. “To see people walk in with that glazed and frightened look on their face. It was like they were the walking dead because they had just had everything ripped out from under them. When they saw someone was listening and there to help them, they just brightened up.”

“So I thought, I can help them a little bit.”

“Jobs and children got in the way,” of further volunteering until late 2019, when Marcia rejoined the Red Cross. “I had seen all the ways the Red Cross had helped during the fires in California and I wanted to be part of that mission and bring help to people in whatever way I could.”

Marcia and her husband of 46 years, Ron, have an adult daughter and son and three grandchildren, twin 9-year-old girls and a 3-year-old boy. They live in Main County, where she spent most of her childhood, on what Marcia describes as “the knees of Mt. Tam,” part way up Mt. Tamalpais.

She has a degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley and a master’s degree from American University in Washington, D.C. She worked as a writer, reporter and news anchor during her broadcast news career, working in Washington, D.C., Sacramento and San Francisco.

Marcia also loves to sing and throughout her life has performed in choirs and musical theater.

See some of her work for the Red Cross here:

Red Cross volunteer: “This is what we do; we go where we’re needed.” 

Dawson Springs, Kentucky was just one of the communities that was severely damaged by a series of tornadoes that swept through several states on Dec. 11. Photo by Jodi Wallace/American Red Cross

It was Dec. 11, and Jodi Wallace, a 16-year veteran Red Cross volunteer from California’s Silicon Valley chapter, was already tired when she got the call to go to Kentucky after a series of tornadoes had devastated broad swaths of that state.

Wallace, 60, had spent most of August responding to California’s Gold County fires and then moved on to assist with the hurricane response in Louisiana. After that, she had helped with the flood response in Washington state. She had been home for only a little more than a week, ready for a well-deserved break, when the call came in.

She knew the scale of the disaster meant the Red Cross would be needed more than ever, so she asked her husband what he thought. “He always tells me, ‘this is what you trained for,'” Wallace says. He’s even teased her: “Would you like me to pick a better month and schedule a disaster for you?”

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Volunteer lifts morale of all around her

Deborah Torres knew she wanted to volunteer for the Red Cross even before she retired from San Mateo County, where she ended a long career in social services and public mental health in 2013. Not long before her retirement, Torres found herself partnering with the Red Cross after two large fires destroyed two apartment buildings in Redwood City. The Red Cross had opened a shelter at the armory near Red Morton Park for people displaced by the fires and was helping them figure out their paths to recovery. “I got to see [the Red Cross] in action,” Torres said.

“I told myself when I started working with Red Cross, that when I retire that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Just three months after her September 2013 retirement, Torres became a Red Cross volunteer.

And this year, Torres was named the Red Cross Volunteer of the Year for San Mateo County.

“I was totally surprised [to receive the award],” Torres said. However, her fellow volunteers were not surprised. Torres’s background in social services and mental health and as a bilingual Latina with decades of experience working in the county make her invaluable.

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