Tag Archives: Disaster Response

Meet Stuart Chessen. Lifelong Volunteer, Dedicated Red Crosser

By Martin Gagliano

Stuart Chessen knows the value of preparedness, but also the power of helping people in their darkest moments.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Chessen

“I’ve always been one willing to help,” he says. “I like to talk and listen to people when they’re having a problem. You may help them further along by listening to what their problems are and I am good at listening.”

As the Specialty Vehicle Lead for the American Red Cross Pacific Division, Stuart oversees the maintenance of Emergency Response Vehicles, or ERVs, Mission Ready Vehicles and sheltering trailers. He also leads specialty vehicle driver training, getting both the fleet and people ready to respond and reach communities in times of need. He was recently honored with the Clara Barton Award for Meritorious Volunteer Leadership for the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Red Cross. This is the highest honor of volunteer achievement at the chapter level, highlighting the significant contributions of someone who serves in a series of leadership positions held over a period of years.

Stuart was an active volunteer in his community for many years before he joined the Red Cross in 2009. When asked about what it’s like being a Red Crosser, he responds humbly, “That is our mission in action. I like the way we all work together to help people. We are there to ease some of their pain in difficult situations, where they just don’t know which way to go because their world’s been turned upside down.”

Stuart Chessen in an Emergency Response Vehicle

Stuart has deployed to disaster responses multiple times, both throughout Northern California and nationwide; he even crossed the country to New York as an ERV driver after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“We took the vehicle here in San Jose and drove it all the way to the East Coast. We had a small delay in Pennsylvania avoiding bad weather and we reached our destination on Long Island after five days. We did mobile feeding around the neighborhoods where people had no gas or power. They were in cold homes, waiting for us to arrive with a hot meal.”

On the preparedness side of Stuart’s Red Cross contributions, his background as a First Aid & CPR instructor makes him an excellent Be Red Cross Ready presenter and he enjoys teaching disaster preparedness in communities across Santa Clara County. In addition to his many roles, Stuart also works as a trainer and coach for Logistics and Disaster Action Team members, recovery caseworkers, ERV drivers and new volunteers.

Stuart is an extremely dedicated volunteer who wears many hats within the Silicon Valley Chapter and the region. He exemplifies the Red Cross values of compassion, collaboration, creativity, credibility, and commitment. Congratulations on this well-deserved award, Stuart, and for all you do on behalf of the Red Cross.

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.

Disaster Response: From Behind the Scenes to the Front Lines

By Alex Keilty

Cameron with an Emergency Response Vehicle in New York City in 2019, which is used to deliver food and water to the site of a disaster.

When Cameron Bochman was completing his accounting degree in North Carolina, did he ever imagine his work would take him to a meeting with FBI agents who were investigating a helicopter crash in New York City? No he didn’t, because his career path has been anything but predictable.  

Cameron, an American Red Cross employee, studied accounting because he had a natural talent for it. He says, “I took accounting because it clicked with me. But I didn’t really feel it was my passion.”

He found that passion after a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China.

“I knew I wanted to do something in humanitarian work,” he says. “And the Red Cross really stood out.” And so this Boston hometown boy packed his bags for New York City three and a half years ago to start his job as a Disaster Response Manager working the overnight shift from midnight to 8 a.m.

Part of a Disaster Action Team – a group of employees and volunteers who are the first, on-the-scene, Red Cross contacts at the site of disasters – Cameron observed the “power of volunteers,” as he calls it. His volunteers responded to countless home fires within an hour of getting a call from the fire department. On site, they provided a shoulder to cry on for those displaced by the fire, and financial assistance in the form of a prepaid debit card that residents could use for shelter at a hotel, groceries, replacing clothing or any other expenses. Then the residents would be referred to Red Cross caseworkers for help with further recovery. 

But back to that meeting with the FBI agents… In addition to home fires, there were unexpected emergencies like when a helicopter crash landed on the roof of a Manhattan building, tragically killing the pilot and erupting in flames.

Cameron at the site of one of his first Disaster Action Team responses in New York City, responding to a multi-family fire in Brooklyn. 

On that freezing cold day, Cameron and his team brought a van loaded with meals, snacks and water to feed first responders as they worked at the site. Cameron also attended meetings with the intelligence agents who were investigating the crash to determine if it was a terrorist act.

Working in New York was never boring, but after a year Cameron wanted to work with the community in a different way. Running public engagement events and prevention programs appealed to him. And so did the sunny skies of California!  

So he moved to Alameda County, to become a Disaster Program Manager, where he helps organize the Home Fire Campaign including the Sound the Alarm program to install free smoke alarms in homes across the county, and the nation.

Cameron and his team of employees and volunteers are also ready to respond to small and large scale tragedies, like when a lightning storm in the summer of 2020 sparked fires across Northern California. Cameron’s team facilitated the opening of an evacuation center and set up a shelter where evacuees from Livermore could sleep, get hot meals, access mental health support and receive the latest information from emergency responders.

Not predictable but definitely rewarding, Cameron says of his work: “You walk away feeling like you did something good.”

Mo Ghandehari – Disaster Action Team Volunteer Extraordinaire

By Larry Dietz

American Red Cross Volunteer Mo Ghandehari is an incredible example of the Red Cross mission – and of the caring and dedicated individuals who do what it takes to accomplish that mission.

Mo started with the Red Cross in 2000, first in Las Vegas, then in Salt Lake City, before moving to California and joining the Silicon Valley Chapter in 2007.

Mo Ghandehari on a Disaster Action Team response.

One of Mo’s first positions as a Red Cross volunteer was on his local Disaster Action Team (DAT). In this role, he responded to the full range of disaster calls ranging from fires in homes, mobile homes, condos, and even a ski resort. He even had the unique experience of responding to a home fire where he and the team installed smoke alarms only a few months earlier.

Red Cross volunteers from the Northern California Coastal Region respond to between 30 and 40 disasters a week where a small handful of local DAT volunteers are some of the first on scene to assist families that have been affected.

The first job of the DAT volunteer on site is to help make the affected residents comfortable and to get them the immediate assistance or materials they might need. This could include simple things like blankets or water. Though, the needs of those affected varies from disaster to disaster, and DAT volunteers also help arrange lodging or financial assistance, which allows families to pay for immediate needs and get back on their feet.

DAT volunteers are also general volunteers and can work in other Red Cross areas. In particular, they can work in their local chapter to perform inventories or make sure that supplies and vehicles are ready to go where they are needed.

There are constant training opportunities for DAT volunteers to learn more about the latest in Red Cross systems, or improve skills with courses like Psychological First Aid: Helping Others in Times of Stress.

DAT volunteers are committed. Many sign up for frequent shifts and are always ready to answer the call, no matter what time of the day or night. When disaster strikes, speed is of the essence, whether it is a major wildfire or a single-family home fire. DAT volunteers have the enthusiasm and confidence to deal with a variety of situations.

Mo advises new DAT members to be proactive in seeking initial training. You can start with your chapter’s DAT lead, or the workforce engagement lead, or the Disaster Program Manager for your area to enroll in training. Though, he says there is no substitute for being on-call and responding.

“It is truly gratifying to help a family that needs a place to stay for a few days, before figuring things out,” he said. “When you are on the scene it is very important to be patient, and respectful of those who were affected and to work closely with your supervisors and managers.”

While the core of being a DAT volunteer is at the local level, there are also many opportunities to expand one’s volunteer career path and deploy to a major disaster as a shelter volunteer as well. It comes as no surprise that Mo has seized many opportunities to deploy and lend his talents across the nation.

When asked about which of his deployments captured the essence of really being on a deployment, he said his time as a shelter supervisor during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would have to be the one.  It was Mo’s first assignment as a shelter supervisor on a disaster response. The shelter was in an elementary school in Pearl River, Louisiana.

“The experience taught me to treat shelter residents just like you would treat your own house guests,” he said. “Our crew did just that! The shelter experience was a team effort between the Red Cross and local volunteers. They opened and operated this shelter for two to three days, and were exhausted and very happy to see us. Residents had already been pitching in – helping the team to prepare breakfast, cleaning the bathrooms, and doing other chores.  We had no electricity and water for the first few days. The new shelter team, which consisted of four volunteers, plus residents (before others arrived), were literally like a family (the shelter had about 50-80 residents), helping each other to make it through.” 

Not only did Mo develop is shelter management skills and style on this deployment, it also taught him about the satisfaction of serving.

“As I was leaving the job – after two weeks – I noticed a hand-written thank you note on the board, on behalf of the shelter, saying that I provided good care during my two weeks as shelter manager,” he recalls. “This, to me, was heartwarming – a very good rewards for two weeks of hard work.”

When asked about what it takes to be a successful shelter manager, Mo said, “Being compassionate, friendly, and able to relate to people from all walks of life, able to establish trust with supervisors and shelter workers, and being a coach and mentor to other team members.”

Mo is a shining example of a Red Cross volunteer. He has won a number of awards, including the Chapter International Services Award (2021), the Extraordinary Commitment and Dedication Award for Chapter Disaster Cycle Services (2016) and the Chapter Clara Barton Award (2012).

You too can become a Disaster Action Team or Sheltering Volunteer and serve your community in their time of need. Visit redcross.org/volunteer to learn more.

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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Looking back on 2021

Please join us as we say goodbye to 2021 with a look back at some of our favorite stories of the year from all of our lines of service.

Service to the Armed Forces

Lisa Ann Rohr was one of nine Red Cross SAF Mobile personnel who left the U.S. for overseas duty from August 2020 to April 2021. Lisa Ann was one of two Red Crossers initially stationed in Iraq, at the diplomatic post Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center (BDSC).

She says: “My entire ‘boots on the ground’ experience providing virtual services in Emergency Communications Messaging Delivery and Service Member follow-up with my peers, to creative ‘no contact’ distribution of incoming holiday donations, gifts and personal care items, to organizing cooking classes, language classes, and cultural history classes for U.S. and Coalition military forces serving their deployment rotation at BDSC, was a dream come true!”

You can read more about Lisa’s experiences here.


Lifesaving Blood

Blood donor Jennifer Sahni credits the Red Cross for saving her life after a challenging childbirth. After delivery, Jennifer’s cesarean incision would not stop bleeding. She received two units of blood, which stabilized her. Two days later, she had to receive a second transfusion with an additional two units of blood. She was able to go home the next day.

“I am so grateful to the people who donated the blood I received,” Jennifer said. “Because of them, I was able to go home and be with my kids. You can read more about Jennifer’s story here.


Training Services

On Tuesday, March 16, two local residents were honored with American Red Cross commendations in a virtual ceremony hosted by the organization’s Central Coast Chapter.

“These two individuals exemplify the mission of the Red Cross to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies and are to be commended for their willingness to help others in distress.” – Michele Averill, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Central Coast Chapter. You can read more about Linda and Robert here.


International Services

Red Crossers and the public at large were invited to a speaker series to learn how the American Red Cross International Services team provides relief and hope in communities around the globe by reconnecting families separated by crises, helping rebuild communities devastated by disasters and working alongside health organizations to eliminated global disease. 

Featured panelists included Chris Losavio, Executive Director, Heart of the Valley Chapter American Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region; Patrick Hamilton, Head of Delegation for the United States and Canada International Committee of the Red Cross; Koby J. Langley, Senior Vice President, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services American Red Cross; Christine Medeiros, Pacific Division Lead, Restoring Family Links American Red Cross. You can view a recording of the discussion here.


Disaster Services

Navy veteran Michael Ocaranza awoke earlier this year to flames engulfing his apartment. He had just enough time to grab his dog, Sparky, and race out the door as fire licked around his head.

American Red Cross volunteers and case managers, Betsy Witthohn and Cindy Jones, first contacted Mike during his hospitalization and began to put together resources for his welfare following his stay. During the recovery process, Mike says they became “like friends from the past that I never had before – it’s a good feeling all over.”

You can read more about Mike’s story here.


From all of us in Communications, Happy Holidays and best wishes for the New Year!

If you have a story lead for any one of our writers, please email us at NCCRPublicAffairs@redcross.org.

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