By Sharon J. Alfred, Red Cross Senior Journalist Volunteer
There are many reasons people choose to become Red Cross volunteers. According to Gail Mcgaugh, a volunteer for the American Red Cross of Central California, participating in a Red Cross Home Fire Campaign was an ideal way to learn fire safety tips and to get to know members of her community.
Mcgaugh has volunteered for years as a member of the Central Valley chapter in her hometown of Fresno, California. Visiting homes to install smoke alarms as part of the home fire campaign gives her the opportunity to connect with her neighbors, as she explains the importance of fire safety and how to prepare.
She has met many memorable people as a home fire campaign volunteer, including:
A revered elder of a Native American tribal nation
A hearing-impaired man establishing a lifelong bond with his new service dog
A colorful artist and publisher, and her gorgeous pet cat
A retired Marine who found a second calling as a Red Cross volunteer
“The random of act of knocking on a stranger’s door to give them the tools they need to survive a home fire,” Mcgaugh says, inspires her again and again. And people aren’t shy about expressing their gratitude. “When I am on a home fire campaign, I get thanked and hugged by everyone.”
But Mcgaugh doesn’t just install smoke alarms and teach home fire preparedness. She is involved in many other Red Cross projects as well. For example, she leads the Madera, Merced, and Mariposa County region’s Pillowcase Project, a program that teaches elementary school children how to build their own emergency preparedness kits.
“I truly enjoy meeting community partners and building lasting relationships and goodwill towards the Red Cross within our communities,” says Mcgaugh.
Fleeing from wildfires can be traumatic and having pets close has been proven to reduce stress and comfort owners driven from their homes by fire. This inspired Katrina Poitras, Central Valley Red Cross Disaster Program Manager, working with Naomi Slam at the Central California Animal Disaster Team (CCADT), to provide emergency pet shelter at select Red Cross shelters.
Evacuees won’t have to shelter separate from their pets, as the Red Cross tests out the new shelter model with pet shelters serving Madera, Mariposa, and Merced counties. Housing evacuees with their pets has been shown to lower stress level of humans and animals alike.
Pet owners staying at the shelter are responsible for the care and feeding of the pets cohabitating with them. CCADT CEO Naomi Slam recommends owners bring a few key items with them to the shelter: “Bring your pet’s carrier, ensure they’re up to date with vaccinations, and bring their preferred food… so there aren’t any upset tummies.”
The practice of cohabitating pets and owners in shelters was implemented at the Ferguson Fire’s New Life Christian Fellowship shelter and expanded upon moving to the Mariposa Elementary School shelter due to the increase in both shelter evacuee and pet populations.
Interviews with shelter residents confirmed the effectiveness of the new shelter plan and the calming effect of having personal pets in the same shelter with them.
The presence of pets also increased bonding among shelter residents and volunteers, and kept children occupied through playing with and learning about the various animals.
Firefighters come from far away to battle wildfires burning across the state. This means faster response to out of control blazes, but it also means long separations from friends and loved ones. The Red Cross Central Valley chapter is working to change that.
Katrina Poitras, Red Cross Central Valley Disaster Program Manager, and Laura Norman, president of Eastern Madera-Mariposa Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster (VOAD), partnered two years ago to launch the Postcard Project. The project provides postcards to family and loved ones of firefighters, then gathers stamps donated from the community, and delivers them to the men and women on the front lines.
Since its creation, the program has sent postcards from loved ones to firefighters responding to multiple fires, including last year’s Detwiler fire, and from the look of things, the program will live on long after this year’s fire season is over. Most recently, it gathered and delivered 1,500 postcards from family and friends of firefighters battling the Ferguson blaze near Yosemite National Park. Another 1,500 are currently being distributed.
Local businesses, including resorts and hotels saved by previous fires donated thousands of postcards, which featured pictures of Mariposa, Yosemite, and Bass Lake, and members of the community donated stamps, making this project truly of and by the community it serves.
The postcards were even stamped, in many cases, by the evacuees themselves to give to the firefighters, according to Lynn Northrup, a Red Cross emergency vehicle driver and Mariposa government liaison.
“What was special about the project was that even though there was a fire in our area, the postcards were a reminder to come back and visit when it was beautiful again [like it was pictured on the postcards].”
Poitras hopes to expand the program nationally, to include first responders not only to wildfires, but also to hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters across the country.
To support the program by donating postcard stamps, click here.
This week, April 15 – 21, 2018 is National Volunteer Week, and we’re taking the time to celebrate and honor the incredible volunteers that make our Red Cross work possible. Last month we celebrated the occasion early, with Volunteer Appreciation dinners throughout the region. At each event, we invited volunteers to write down their favorite Red Cross moments, memories, and stories.
This Volunteer Week, we’re letting local volunteers tell these incredible stories in their own words. The following are excerpts from some of our favorite shared stories.
“When I was a child I stayed in a Red Cross shelter in Northern California. It was during Christmas and I wanted to help the other kids have something to do. I bought coloring books and colored. I always thought it would be great to help others, and here I am more than 30 years later serving my community in a disaster relief shelter during the Christmas season! The seed planted so very long ago was actually a spark that I kept alive in my heart and I am inspired to keep the tradition going.”
“It’s the most professional group of volunteers I’ve ever worked with! Everyone is so dedicated to the effort and will do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
“It’s an amazing organization of humanitarians. Red Crossers are some of the kindest, brightest, most caring folks around and it is an honor to be in the midst of such wonderful people.”
“I truly enjoyed the opportunity to work with Red Cross family members from around the region during our recent responses. Everyone has been so welcoming and there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for accomplishing our mission.”
“My first official Red Cross event was the past January Sound the Alarm event. I was able to go into homes and connect with the families. I was so happy and proud because the people we met were very skeptical of me, but by the end of the visit I felt a bond. And knowing the small task of installing a smoke alarm could do so much for them.”
“It’s great to put something directly into the hands of someone who needs it. One of these times was at the stand down when we gave out comfort kits and backpacks. I almost cried when the vets thanked us for our service!”
“In 2017 Visalia Fire had a 3-alarm apartment fire where I was the Battalion Chief in charge of Operations, and then went home to get my Red Cross Disaster Action Team supplies to assist six families that were displaced.”
“I love the sense of community. I’m proud to be part of an organization that helps the community with no strings attached.”
“I had no idea how much the Red Cross does during disasters. It has been a beautiful, eye-opening experience.”
“The Red Cross was giving a helping hand in more ways than I had ever imagined. My biggest surprise is that I seem to be getting back more than I’m giving… the Red Cross has been a tremendous blessing in my life.”
“Seeing neighbors helping neighbors all across the country. The Red Cross brings out the best in all of us.”
“When I was 17 I was involved in a fatal car accident. I lost a lot of blood, and wouldn’t be here today without the help of a blood donor. When I met Jim McGee, and he gave me the full Red Cross story and all the organization does including blood drives, I knew it was a place where I could pour passion and enthusiasm. I am here to help the way I was helped.”
“I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the Red Cross. My Dad was in the US Army at the Battle of the Bulge and was captured by Germans. He was starving. He was a little guy, 5’6” and 145 pounds. He was only 90 pounds when he escaped. Prior to that, the Red Cross sent a box of food for the prisoners each month. If it wasn’t for those boxes of food, he would have died of starvation.”
“I joined the Red Cross at 13 with my mother, and the first time I deployed it was with my mother! My sister is now a Disaster Action Team volunteer in San Diego County. Red Cross is family in every sense of the word.”
Volunteers make of more than 90% of the Red Cross workforce. The work we do every day to serve our communities would not be possible without their compassion and dedication. Learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer; visit redcross.org/volunteer today.
These quotes have been edited for clarity and grammar.
With an unprecedented amount of large-scale natural disasters over that last several months, many striking right here in California, we’re even more grateful for our volunteers, donors and partners. This incredible level of response demonstrates the need for preparedness and what it means to have a kit, make a plan and be informed. And, while we are fortunate that we did not have to respond to a major California earthquake through all of this, being prepared for an earthquake of any size should always remain a top item on all of our lists.
One long-time Red Cross partner, the California Earthquake Authority, places a high priority on educating California homeowners and renters about how to stay safe during an earthquake, and how to reduce the risk of earthquake damage and loss. One of the programs they promote, the Brace & Bolt Retrofit, stands to benefit qualifying California residents with critical financial assistance in preparing for earthquakes.
For qualified persons, the Brace & Bolt Retrofit will cover up to 50% of the cost of retrofitting a California home for earthquakes. More specifically, expenses cover the bolting of a home to its foundation to keep it from sliding off during an earthquake, and a subsequent bracing of the house’s supports. CEA’s program also provides homeowners with a list of qualified retrofit contractors.
But, that not all. Each year, CEA plays an instrumental role in the Great California Shake Out and, every year since 2012 they have shown their commitment to Red Cross emergency preparedness and disaster relief by hosting the Get Prepared California! Auction.
This year, the auction runs from April 2nd to April 30th and, as in the past, it will raise funds to help support American Red Cross disaster relief and preparedness efforts—right here in California.
The money raised will help us distribute blankets, provide hot meals at shelters or out in communities affected by a disaster via our Emergency Response Vehicles and, offer hygiene items to people who may have lost everything.
Thanks to the generous support of bidders and the efforts of CEA and iHeartMedia, after six years, the funds raised to date by the annual auction have exceed $1 million dollars—with more than $171,000 being raised during the 2017 auction, alone.
Check out just a few of the incredible prizes you can win at this year’s auction:
On a bright and sunny Saturday, March 31st at Oak Canyon Community Park in Ventura County, CA, I had the honor of joining local Red Cross event-base volunteers Anurag Karra (North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet High School), Sriram Potluri (Oak Park High School), and Aneesh Ankareddy (Oak Park High School) for a 5K Walk-a-Thon.
The youth-led event benefited American Red Cross Disaster Relief as a local community response to the Thomas Fire in December 2017-January 2018. After what I considered very little back-and-forth on getting the event organized, these young men pulled off a high quality fundraising event that was successful from various points of view, including number of participants, food and refreshments, and money raised for the Red Cross. Anurag, Sriram, and Aneesh even expressed a desire to hold a similar 5K Walk-a-Thon event next year, or they even may lead a smoke alarm installation event in Ventura County!
Did you know? 25% of Red Cross volunteers are age 24 years or younger. Being young is no barrier to being able to help people in need, in your community and around the world! Youth volunteers and Red Cross Clubs throughout the region play a vital role in serving the Red Cross and our community. They raise funds for everything from local disaster relief to the international Measles Initiative, as well as educate their local communities on emergency preparedness. These dedicated Red Crossers learn lifelong skills through their volunteerism, and provide important services to our most vulnerable communities.
Learn more about youth volunteer opportunities in your local Red Cross chapter. Inspired by these teens’ philanthropy? Consider making a donation or let us know your fundraising ideas in the comments!
Regional Philanthropy Officer
Pacific Coast and Ventura County chapters
A series of personal items are laid out on a bed. It looks like typical scene of someone packing for an overnight trip; there is a bag, a change of clothes, and a laptop. But this is not a typical suitcase.
Look closer and you’ll realize that a pair of tan slip on shoes are written on with a black marker:
Fire Shoes 12-4-17
These are the only personal items that Dawn Reily was able to grab at a moment’s notice when the Thomas Fire forced her family to evacuate last December. With her parents, her daughter Jade, and 18 animals to also evacuate, these items are all Dawn was able to grab for herself in the minutes before fleeing their home. These everyday items are now cherished possessions from the disaster that destroyed her Ventura Skyline home on December 4, 2017.
As the Thomas Fire approached her home, Dawn knew right away where to take her family: the Red Cross shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Once they arrived at the shelter, they were greeted by Red Cross volunteers who provided cots and a safe place for her family to sleep. Dawn, a former Humane Society employee, immediately went to work through the night helping set up the animal shelter next door and supporting other families as they came to the shelter with their pets.
The next morning Dawn looked up at the hillside in the direction of her home and knew it was gone. She wrote on Facebook that day, “Our mind wanders about what you will miss that you didn’t take out of the house and between what you are grateful to still. Jade just said, ‘If someone asks me what I miss, I’d say the whole thing. The feeling of being home.’ I agree.”
On Wednesday, December 6, Dawn went to see the remains of their home for the first time. As an artist, Dawn not only lost her home, but her livelihood. Decades of work and sketchbooks were reduced to ash.
The frame of a bedroom chair is all that remains.
The frame of a bicycle is visible in the rubble.
These bottles were part of Dawn’s art studio.
Dawn’s father sifts through the remains of their home, looking for anything that can be saved.
Dawn’s home was reduced to ash and twisted metal after the Thomas Fire destroyed the neighborhood.
Slides containing precious family memories are destroyed in the Thomas Fire.
A painted rock gives an optimistic reminder amidst the destruction of the Thomas Fire
Dawn’s home was reduced to ash and twisted metal after the Thomas Fire destroyed the neighborhood.
Tea cups and other small collectibles are sad souvenirs and reminders of the Thomas Fire.
“We came around the corner and completely lost it with anger, fear, and every emotion you can think of,” said Dawn, “We were walking around our house, my daughter was crying about losing her ballet shoes.”
Once the initial shock of the fire wore off, Dawn and her family began the long and painful road to recovery. But they had support from their loved ones, the community, and organizations like the Red Cross and United Way. They found out about the Red Cross Service Center that had opened at the Ventura County Credit Union and went to see what resources would be available.
“It was awesome,” said Dawn, “Jade got a Mickey Mouse doll, there were refreshment there,” said Dawn, “You just don’t even think. It’s so hard to process. People ask what you need and you just need everything.”
“Having a place to talk and get information and be surprised at the fact that you’re eligible for assistance is so helpful. You’re at a loss for what to do and how to start. It’s overwhelming. To have someone know what the next steps are and what to do is a godsend,” she said.
Donations made to the Red Cross and United Way in the aftermath of the fire allowed these organizations to provide critical financial assistance to families like Dawn’s as they began to recover. With these funds, Dawn was able to purchase new art supplies to revive her business and start generating income, and purchase other important resources for their family.
“Everybody that has helped us, we called them our angels. All these angels came forward to help,” said Dawn.
Despite losing almost everything but the clothes on her back, Dawn is now giving back to the community that supported her. She is working on a poster that represents the strength and resilience of the Ventura County community.
“We live in such a beautiful, strong community and we will rebuild and we will be stronger for it,” said Dawn, “Part of my healing process is by teaching and being open, talking about it, and if someone can gain strength by my experience, then I’ve done my job.”
She plans to donate the proceeds from the poster sales back to the organizations she felt gave so much to her: the Red Cross, United Way, Food Share, and Project Understanding.
“Out of the ashes rises the phoenix. It’s like rebirth,” said Dawn, “I feel like a different person.”
Giving Day is Wednesday, March 28.
The Red Cross is asking everyone to support families like Dawn’s who are impacted by disasters on Giving Day – Wednesday, March 28. Your donation can #Help1Family and provide hope and urgent relief such as food, blankets and other essentials to people who need it most. Giving Day is a 24-hour fundraising campaign supporting the work of the Red Cross, helping people across the country in need of emergency assistance. Donate now by visiting redcross.org/givingday, or by texting REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10.