Red Cross volunteer helps hundreds, deepens purpose while supporting COVID-19 condolence call center

On a Monday in late January, the American Red Cross virtual condolence care center for people grieving loved ones lost to COVID-19 did not stop getting calls. In fact, the center was bombarded with around 25 calls taken by two volunteers, including Rose Olmsted.

“The people who are calling us don’t have a support system,” says Rose, a Disaster Mental Health volunteer who took calls that day from her home in Albert Lea, Minnesota.

The calls come mostly from diverse communities, especially in Texas, California and other states hard hit with COVID deaths. Some have buried two or three family members, while others have had four or even five loved ones sick from the disease.

Established by the Red Cross in 2020 as the pandemic settled in, the Virtual Family Assistance Center (VFAC) provides free emotional, health and spiritual guidance to those most in need. It’s also a source for referrals to other coronavirus assistance.

Rose Olmsted. Submitted photo.

Rose has served as a disaster mental health volunteer since 2009. For this role, she was vetted, and then had an additional two-weeks of orientation. During her shifts, she has a supervisor and manager available to consult with. Since going active with the call center last fall, Rose has spoken to hundreds of people.

“I want to take these calls from the disadvantaged. They are my kind of people, the poor, minorities, people disadvantaged by income, access to technology, access to transportation, limited health care or chronic health conditions.”

Rose spends most of her time listening. People are in a state of grief and incredible anxiety. Some are especially stressed because loved ones died without them at hospitals or suddenly at home. Rose listens without interruption.

At the end of one call Rose remembers a woman, after sharing a deeply personal story of tragic, long-term loss and grief, experienced simple peace and gratitude just because someone, in this case a volunteer named Rose, listened to her story.  

Image from Red Cross condolence card.

Listening can take a toll, even on experienced and trained professionals like Rose. Her regular social activities are limited because of the pandemic so she’s turned to live, online concerts, daily meditation and intentional connecting with friends.  

“People ask, why do you want to keep doing this? If you have to ask me, then…”  Her voice trails off. The work continues to bring Rose great purpose even while the calls get harder and the pandemic’s impact deepens in communities across the country.

Access the American Red Cross Virtual Family Assistance Center. People without internet access can call 833-492-0094 for help between 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday - Friday local time to speak with a trained Red Cross volunteer in English or Spanish. Callers in immediate crisis should call 911 or a hotline like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Callers also can find crisis support through the national Disaster Distress Helpline.   
Help and support are available for people from any state, county, territory or tribal nation. Frontline responders, such as healthcare workers, workers at long-term care facilities, and other essential personnel dealing with families of COVID-19 patients, are welcome to call as well for free individual and group support.
Download the American Red Cross Guidebook for Grieving Families. Download Resources for Community Leaders. 

Story by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Helping people affected by Hurricane Hanna

Carol Holm of the American Red Cross surveys flooding caused by Hurricane Hanna, in Edcouch, TX on Tuesday July 28, 2020. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross

Fulfilling our humanitarian mission to alleviate human suffering continues in response to disasters in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, 17 volunteers from across our three-state region are helping people affected by Hurricane Hanna in Texas. These deployments include volunteers like Carol Holm (pictured above and below) who are on-the-ground in Texas while others are responding remotely from home.

In response to Hurricane Hanna, more than 200 Red Cross disaster workers are beginning detailed damage assessment work across Texas, in addition to supporting additional response efforts. Feeding missions are underway in the hardest hit counties where the power has been out and food is unavailable. So far, more than 5,900 meals and snacks have been served with partners. Over 470 overnight shelter and hotel stays have been provided with partners. More than 400 contacts have been made to support any physical, mental health, disability and spiritual needs.

Red Cross volunteers Carol Holm, right, and Marc Lazerow, left, show the Cantu family to their cots at a Red Cross shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Hanna in Edcouch, TX on Tuesday July 28, 2020. Family units are grouped closer together while other cots are spaced further apart for social distance from others to help protect against COVID-19. Photo by Scott Dalton/American Red Cross

Throughout the 2020 hurricane season, dedicated Red Cross relief workers, mostly volunteers, will continue to prepare for and respond to each round of storms providing comfort and care as affected communities assess damage and attempt to return to daily life, amidst the continued struggle against the Coronavirus Outbreak.

We’ve undertaken a suite of risk mitigation activities for our disaster workforce, including prioritizing non-congregate lodging for our responders, mandating the use of face coverings for everyone working at a Red Cross work site, pre-arrival COVID-19 testing when required by the receiving state, departure testing for all deployed workers, and maximizing virtual work.

You can help people affected by disasters like storms and countless other crises by making a gift to American Red Cross Disaster Relief or by becoming a Disaster Relief Volunteer. You can donate or start your volunteer journey at redcross.org/mndaks.

July Fourth Safety Tips

This year, celebrating Independence Day will be different due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We have safety tips that you can follow, especially if your community is re-opening.

COVID-19 Safety

• Continue to social distance by staying 6 feet away from others, especially if you are at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19 (over age 65 or any age with underlying medical conditions).

• Continue to wear cloth face coverings in public. Face coverings are most essential when social distancing is difficult.

• Follow guidelines for your area when it comes to how large gatherings can be. Avoid crowds and mass gatherings.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily.

• Stay home if you are sick.

Fireworks Safety

Many public fireworks shows are canceled this summer to avoid holding events where large crowds will gather. If you plan to use your own fireworks, check first if it is legal in your area.

• Never give fireworks to small children, and never throw or point a firework toward people, animals, vehicles, structures or flammable materials. Always follow the instructions on the packaging.

Keep a supply of water close by as a precaution.

Make sure the person lighting fireworks always wears eye protection.

• Light only one firework at a time and never attempt to relight “a dud.”

• Store fireworks in a cool, dry place away from children and pets.

Grilling Safety

Grilling fires spark more than 10,000 home fires on average each year in the U.S. Do these things to help prevent a home fire:

• Always supervise a barbecue grill when in use.

• Don’t add charcoal starter fluid when coals have already been ignited.

• Never grill indoors — not in the house, camper, tent or any enclosed area.

• Make sure everyone, stays away from the grill, including children and pets.

• Keep the grill away from the house or anything that could catch fire. 

• Use the long-handled tools especially made for cooking on the grill.

DYK: The Red Cross offers a series of free mobile apps to put lifesaving safety information in the palm of your hand. Download these apps by searching for “American Red Cross” in your app store or at redcross.org/apps.

Have a save and fun weekend!

Cultivating Compassion with Red Cross Psychological First Aid Training

By CC McGraw, Red Cross Volunteer

Once COVID-19 reached the United States and everything began to shut down, it was hard to grasp the severity of this whole thing. As an athlete at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, our spring season was canceled completely, and we were immediately moved off campus and forced to complete the rest of the semester online.

Inevitably, this was a big change for all of the athletes, especially since we had grown so used to having such crazy hectic schedules and nonstop training. This was heartbreaking to say the least, but our athletics department prioritized our mental health and stress levels by taking certain initiatives of providing access to meditation apps and ensuring we were staying connected with our teams via Zoom.

CC McGraw, UMN Gopher Volleyball (photo provided by CC)

For me, those efforts were a kind of psychological first aid, a bandage for mental health. Like a good bandage, psych first aid brings mental health stability during emergencies, especially during disasters. Psych first aid mitigates acute distress and serves as a bridge to continued support and care if necessary.

Whatever the case may be, it’s always important that those affected by a disaster are provided with empathetic and practical psychological support. This begins with a strong, compassionate, and supportive presence by an American Red Cross volunteer. But it can also begin with you, now at home, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To help, the Red Cross is offering online psych first aid training for free. I recently completed the training, and I realize the necessity for it now more than ever. Emotional distress is not always as visible as a physical injury, and yet it has the power to be just as painful and debilitating.

After going through a life-altering experience and traumatic event, it’s very common to be affected emotionally. Psych first aid is simply a strategy to reduce the wide range of painful emotions experienced by those with high volumes of stress.

Tips from the American Red Cross online psychological first aid training course

The training touches on the vast range of stress reactions which can be manifested in thoughts, feelings, behaviors, physical effects, and spiritual beliefs. It informs us of the many contributing factors to stress reactions and the role that they play in the distress of the individual. More importantly, it raises awareness on how to analyze the situation, then describes how to approach it accordingly.

There are a variety of actions you can take depending on the situation. However, the training provides twelve main components that you should consistently try to follow. Now that I have them, I feel a new confidence and awareness in order to approach and help those affected.

I’ve found that this training benefits my ability to aid individuals in a more compassionate and supportive way, as well as use this new knowledge to support my family, friends, and others in my community. It’s a tool we can all use to reduce our own stress levels, by simply understanding our reactions to different forms of stress and then applying the principles of psych first aid to enhance our resilience to those stressors.

I recently completed the training, and I realize the necessity for it now more than ever. Emotional distress is not always as visible as a physical injury, and yet it has the power to be just as painful and debilitating.

Of course, I continue to have my worries and doubts with all of the uncertainty that stems from COVID-19, but I also understand that this pandemic is affecting every single person in the world, in some form or another.

Regardless of the circumstance, people are having to sort out their stressors and stress reactions in order to maintain their mental health in quarantine, so this is another reason why the free and online psych first aid course from the Red Cross is so beneficial. It provides you with many forms of stress reactions, stressors, and how to manage your stress in a healthy manner.

I’ve also found that to effectively help and support those around you, you should feel confident that your mental health and stress levels are intact as well.

Healthy and able blood donors are called to keep blood on the shelves for patients in need

Thousands of blood drives canceled, resulting in tens of thousands of uncollected blood donations during Coronavirus Pandemic

The American Red Cross is working to continue delivering our mission, including the collection of lifesaving blood, but we have had a staggering number of scheduled Red Cross blood drives canceled as more workplaces, college campuses and other venues send people home and encourage social distancing. Disruptions to blood donations can lead to shortages and cause delays in essential medical care.

As of March 26, about 9,000 blood drives, representing more than 300,000 fewer blood donations, have been canceled in the U.S. due to COVID-19 concerns. In our Minnesota and Dakotas blood services region, cancellations include 311 blood drives, resulting in more than 10,360 uncollected donations. As the number of COVID-19 cases grow in our region, we expect that number to increase unfortunately.

Those who are healthy, feeling well and eligible to give blood or platelets, are urged to make an appointment to donate as soon as possible by using the Red Cross Blood Donor App,

As concerns about the coronavirus pandemic rise, please know:

•             Donating blood is a safe process and people should not be concerned about giving or receiving blood during this challenging time.

•             More healthy donors are needed to give now to prevent a blood shortage.

•             Keep scheduled blood drives, which will allow donors the opportunity to give blood. 

As an emergency preparedness organization, the Red Cross has also taken additional steps to ensure the safety of staff and donors at each Red Cross blood drive.

•             The Red Cross only collects blood from individuals who are healthy and feeling well at the time of donation – and who meet other eligibility requirements, available at RedCrossBlood.org. 

•             We are now pre-screening all individuals by checking their temperature before they enter any Red Cross blood drive or donation center, including our own staff and volunteers. 

•             At each blood drive and donation center, Red Cross employees follow thorough safety protocols including wearing gloves, routinely wiping down donor-touched areas, using sterile collection sets for every donation, and preparing the arm for donation with an aseptic scrub. 

•             Additional spacing has been implemented within each blood drive set up to incorporate social distancing measures between donation beds and stations within the blood drive.

•             The average blood drives are only 20-30 people and are not large gatherings. 

These mitigation measures will help to keep blood recipients, staff and donors safe.

Thank you for being lifesavers for patients in need in Minnesota and across the country!

7 Healthy Habits to Help Prevent Flu

Every year on average 8% of people in the U.S. get the flu – don’t let it be you!

  1. Get vaccinated. Everyone 6 months of age an older should get a flu vaccine every season, especially people at high risk.
  2. Avoid close contact. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you are sick, keep your distance from others.
  3. Stay home when you are sick. Stay home from work, school and errands when you are sick to prevent spreading your illness to others.
  4. Cover your mouth and nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to prevent those around you from getting sick.
  5. Clean your hands. Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  6. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.
  7. Practice other good health habits. Clean frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

BONUS! Flu vaccination does not prevent blood donation. Yeah!

Download our new Flu (Influenza) Checklist that’s available in eight languages. Stay informed about public health recommendations related to flu and other health threats by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For more information on disaster and emergency preparedness, visit redcross.org.

Minnesota nurse receives highest international Red Cross award

This year, our own Janice Springer is among the selected recipients of the prestigious Florence Nightingale Medal. This honor from the International Committee of the Red Cross is the highest international distinction a nurse can receive.

Janice Springer, DNP, RN, PHN, received this prestigious recognition for extraordinary service in disaster situations and in public health and nursing education.

Dr. Springer co-authored the American Red Cross Disaster Health and Sheltering course, used to teach more than 18,000 nursing students nationwide how to serve as Disaster Health Services volunteers. Students who complete the course may go on to become official Red Cross nurses after graduation, expanding the pool of prepared Disaster Health Services volunteers. She also created the evidence-based Cot-to-Cot© model to assist clients with functional and access needs in American Red Cross shelters.

Dr. Springer is a Red Cross volunteer who has deployed to 15 disaster relief operations since 2005, often as a leader. Having held several Red Cross leadership roles within Disaster Cycle Services and the International Services Department, she is currently serving as Volunteer Partner for International Recovery, expanding her public health nursing expertise internationally.

Dr. Springer serves as a disaster public health and disability integration subject matter expert for the North American Humanitarian Response Summit, a coalition of U.S. and international government and humanitarian response organizations, helping plan for international cross-border catastrophic disasters. She has published extensively in nursing textbooks and professional journals and has presented papers and posters on her research and best practices throughout the world.

Dr. Springer’s contributions to public health nursing, disaster nursing and the Red Cross are exceptional. The effects of her dedication, leadership and work will continue to spread their positive impact on Red Cross nursing and support individuals affected by disasters around the world.

Click here for more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer.

For one woman seeking refuge from Hurricane Dorian, a Red Cross vest evokes memories of Minnesota childhood

Pretty in purple:  Virginia Marciniak chats with Bob Wallace.

Among the more than 9,000 people seeking refuge from Hurricane Dorian is Virginia Marciniak, a shelter resident at the St. Cloud Senior Center in Florida.

Virginia offers a hand and takes great delight in sharing that she grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and attended Clara Barton Elementary School (now Open School) that was named after the founder of the American Red Cross.

“Her picture was everywhere,” says Virginia. “They told us all about her … she was really a remarkable woman … I bet no one else in here can tell you a story like that,” she says with a smile.

Although she is residing in the shelter to escape the expected wind and water wrath of Hurricane Dorian, Virginia retains an insuppressible sense of humor.

“One of the nurses here, one named Jane, has a vest with ‘Nurse Jane’ on the back followed by ‘Disaster Relief.’ I think that could be a great TV serial,” she says with a chuckle.

The shelter at the senior center is for residents of Good Samaritan Retirement Village. It’s operated by the Osceola County Health Department and supported by the American Red Cross.

Shelter resident Virginia Marciniak and Red Cross volunteer Bob Wallace.

Story by Bob Wallace with photos by Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross. Click here for more stories and photos. Click here to make a financial gift helping people affected by Hurricane Dorian.

Responding to disasters: “Flexible is the word”

Rick’s got to get on a plane soon. So, let’s get right to this. Rick Emanuel (in the video below) is going south to support people affected by the powerful storm approaching the Gulf Coast.

This will be Rick’s third deployment to a major disaster response in just over a year. His first, last fall, was Hurricane Florence, where he worked at a shelter in Havelock, North Carolina. “Feeding, setting up cots, making sure everybody has what they need,” he says were the main things he did in his volunteer role supporting shelter operations for the American Red Cross. “And getting people to the right resources when they’re in crisis.”

Rick Emanuel

In North Carolina, the water rose so fast in some areas that first responders, national guard soldiers and community helpers were bringing in people, especially the elderly, in massive dump trucks because those vehicles could reach them through the flood waters. “They were bringing in people as fast as they could,” he says. Supplies arrived anytime and needed to be off-loaded as fast as possible. Sometimes this was in the middle of the night when volunteers like him might get some sleep. “That was the biggest part of the deal, finding down time.”

With this deployment to Louisiana he’s even more ready to help others because he knows that “flexible is the word” when it comes to providing disaster relief.

If you would like to support disasters big and small, including training and deploying volunteers like Rick, visit redcross.org/mn.

Story by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Responding to disasters: Opioid overdose has no boundary

September 13, 2018. Strong winds and rain from the outer bands of Hurricane Florence begin impacting the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, NC. Photo by Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross.

During Hurricane Florence, John Decker was not at the shelter in North Carolina the night a woman died from an opioid overdose in September of 2018.

But he heard about the death almost as soon as it happened because for one month, at the onset of the response, Decker was in North Carolina serving as Disaster Health Services chief for the Red Cross relief effort. The young woman who died was her mother’s care-taker, he recalls.

Decker is a Red Cross volunteer who responds to major disasters across the United States. When home in Minnesota, he’s a registered nurse. Now, after ten years with the Red Cross, he’s often at the front lines of providing disaster relief in shelters.

September 15, 2018. Red Cross shelter relief supplies at Farmville Middle School, NC. Photo by Adam Jennings for the American Red Cross.

That night in North Carolina their first concern, Decker says, was to support the young woman’s mother. Their second was to prevent more deaths. Decker connected with national Red Cross disaster leadership that was supporting field activities. Together, they set two immediate priorities: find naloxone and train shelter workers.

The CDC reports that around 130 people die from opioid overdose every day in the United States. During 2017, 47,600 people died from overdoses involving opioids. Those deaths were 68% of drug-related overdoses.

John Decker

Decker found a local source for Narcan, one type of naloxone medicine that reverses overdose.  There were only a couple boxes. Not enough, he figured. Plus, they were expensive. Then, his phone rang.  On the line was a woman who worked with a relief partner. She had 2,500 – 3,000 doses. With help, Decker picked them up and got them distributed to more than 400 shelters.

The Red Cross and its partners supported more than 129,700 overnight stays for people displaced because of Hurricane Florence across North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. During Fiscal Year 2018, the Red Cross and its partners provided more than 1 million overnight shelter stays for people affected by disasters.

A sign at the Red Cross relief headquarters in North Carolina. Courtesy of John Decker.

Next up was teaching shelter workers the signs of opioid overdose and the steps to respond. Initially, some people resisted. They were comfortable delivering relief supplies, not giving someone a medicine requiring injection.  The training transformed their feelings and their skills. At first it’s scary, and then we learn, and then it’s nothing, Decker says. “It’s good to get rid of the mystery. It’s no more complicated than a kid’s Legos.”

September 17, 2018. The Red Cross shelter at the University of North Carolina Friday Center in Chapel Hill. Photo by Daniel Cima for the American Red Cross.

Since then, the Red Cross released an online class that helps people respond to opioid overdose emergencies. I took the course and learned a lot. It removed my anxiety and strengthened my confidence about helping someone during an opioid overdose emergency. Check out and take the class here. For a quick understanding of opioid overdose, watch this new video.

Story by Lynette Nyman for the American Red Cross Minnesota Region.