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

Self-care tips to keep you happy and healthy this winter

By Vanessa Racine, Canadian Red Cross social media coordinator

Colder temperatures. Less light. Rain, snow. It can sometimes be difficult to stay cheery during the winter in a country like Canada! Some Canadians enjoy the season because it gives them a good excuse – if not forces them – to do something that we tend to neglect: to take time out for ourselves, and ourselves alone.

Refocusing on yourself is extremely important and should regularly be made a priority. It lets you reflect, build your self-esteem, and feel good about yourself. Since we’re at home most of the time, winter is the perfect season to learn how to take time for yourself, live a calmer life, make room for your passions – and discover new ones.

Here are self-care tips to help you stay healthy this winter:

1. Read – one of the best ways to escape and spark your imagination.
2. Do a hands-on activity – knit, paint, sew or tackle a DIY project. Building or creating something with your own two hands can give you a real sense of pride.
3. Take a bubble bath – for even deeper relaxation, pair it with a good book and/or music.
4. Turn your phone all the way off – at least for one day a week.
5. Get involved with an organization that works for a cause that’s important to you — why not with the Red Cross?
6. Get active – whether you opt for something calming or energizing, regular exercise improves your physical and mental well-being.
7. Whip up a homemade hot chocolate – or another little sweet treat for your taste buds.
8. Light candles – the warm glow and fragrance make for the perfect calming atmosphere.
9. Play board games – dig out that old Monopoly set or deck of cards and have a blast rediscovering old classics!
10. Do a face and hair mask once a week – or go all out with an at-home spa day.
11. Sort through your stuff – clean out your closets! Throwing away, selling, or donating items does wonders and helps you feel more at home, since your space is less cluttered.
12. Cook up a homemade meal – from the cuisine of your choice, prepared with love from start to finish.
13. Learn a language – even if it’s just the basics of a language you’ve always dreamed of learning. It’s good to challenge yourself in a healthy way, and best of all, it’s useful.
14. Make a list – of fashion, travel, positive thoughts… it doesn’t matter what the list is about, just as long as it motivates and inspires you.
15. Put on some music and dance.

I hope that you’ll draw inspiration from these self-care tips and take care of yourself on the daily. And don’t forget, stress is a part of modern life and is a normal reaction to change. To limit the harmful effects of stress on your mental or physical health, it’s important to learn to live a healthy lifestyle, and if needed, to not hesitate to ask loved ones or health professionals for help. Doing so will make you more likely to stay zen!

For more well-being resources, click here and here. By the way, a near identical version of this post originally appeared on the Canadian Red Cross blog, which means this post is published here with permission from the Canadian Red Cross. Thank you!

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.

Desperately Seeking Sewers

Red Cross is asking home stitchers to make face coverings for service members, veterans and their family members

Face coverings volunteers sent to the Fargo VA for veterans and their families, May 2020.

Continuing Legacy
For more than 130 years, the American Red Cross has provided comfort and care to service members, veterans and their families. One long-standing activity is the Red Cross program to knit socks and helmet liners, sew coverings for casts, and crochet or quilt lap blankets for injured wheelchair patients.

We’re continuing this legacy during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis because an ongoing need exists for face coverings that people can wear on military installations, at veteran’s homes and hospitals, and other areas where they are required. To help, our volunteer workforce is joining others to help sew and distribute these coverings.

Take for example Judi, a long-time Red Cross volunteer in Minot, North Dakota. She made 170 (wow!) of the 262 we’ve given so far to the VA in Fargo, ND. “I’ve always felt that everyone should take care of our veterans, in any way that we can. It’s a small gesture, but one that’s greatly needed. It’s a privilege to be able to help,” says Judi, who’s also a military veteran.

Get Sewing
If you’re interested in making face coverings to support service members, veterans and/or their families, please read this article from the CDC for sewing and design details. We’re particularly looking for face coverings made with gender neutral, masculine, or patriotic fabrics and sewn at home by hand or machine. We especially recommend that they’re sturdy enough for industrial laundry machines.

Community stitcher JoAnn sews face coverings for distribution at the VA in Hot Springs, SD, May 2020.

JoAnn, pictured above at her sewing machine, made face coverings for the VA in Hot Springs, South Dakota. For her, taking up the sewing project was a way to come together during a time when lives have changed so much and so quickly. “I learned about the need for face masks and just one mask turned into forty!  The challenge encouraged me to keep reaching out. Thank you for the privilege and honor to assist the Red Cross and the VA.”

Stitching Tips
• Consider expanding the sizes seen in the link above to accommodate a wider variety of face types/sizes (man vs. woman, facial hair, etc.).
• Using a softer material for the interior part of the covering can make it more comfortable to wear.
• Launder and dry material prior to making face coverings to reduce the chance of shrinkage.
• Tie closures provide greatest size and comfort accommodation as well as making them sturdier for multiple washings in heavy-duty laundry machines.

Final Step
When your home stitched face coverings are ready, reach out to our Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) team at minnesotadakotassaf@redcross.org for mailing or drop-off information. Working with our volunteers, our team will verify the need for face coverings with service member partners and make arrangements for delivering your home-sewn coverings to where they’re needed most across our Minnesota and Dakotas region.

Thank you so much for helping our military heroes!

An American Red Cross historical poster from World War I.

Critical need for African American blood donors

Hi Everyone,

We want to let you know that the American Red Cross has a critical need for African American blood donors to help patients, especially those battling sickle cell disease, following a significant decrease in diverse donors in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic environment.

Across the nation since mid-March, the number of African Americans donating blood with the Red Cross has dropped by more than half. This low donor turnout is largely due to blood drive cancellations at businesses, churches and schools and the disproportionate COVID-19 infection rates for African Americans compared to other ethnicities.

Despite the steep decline in blood donations, the need for blood products for patients with sickle cell disease has remained relatively steady.

So, we’re reaching out to partners, community influencers, organizations, and YOU! for support that could help raise awareness about the need for diverse blood donors, especially African American blood donors during this COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, we’re encouraging eligible donors from communities of color to keep their scheduled donation appointments and to look for open appointments at redcrossblood.org, especially in the weeks ahead as blood drives are added.

Thank you! 😘

Ethan Hiew – Overcoming fear to help others with COVID-19

On April 28 at the Red Cross in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ethan Hiew stepped up in big way – he overcame his fear of needles and donated convalescent plasma that will help COVID-19 patients recover.

“I’m not fond of needles and I definitely was a bit scared. But this is very relaxing and I’m just chilling out listening to some music. I’m happy I’m able to share my good health.”

Ethan, 17, is a Boy Scout and a St. Thomas Academy junior who’s aspiring to have a career in the film industry. He tested positive for COVID-19 after the illness was spread by a family member who had traveled to Europe for business.

He started having headaches. He thought the headaches were from adjusting to a new pair of glasses. But they persisted, and then he tested positive for COVID-19.

Ethan did not have severe symptoms or require hospitalization, and once he fully recovered after self-quarantine, his family talked together on how they could help others during these uncertain times. They decided to fill out the donor eligibility form on the Red Cross website to see if Ethan qualified to donate convalescent plasma for critically ill COVID-19 patients. A few days later, they heard back that Ethan was a candidate to donate.

“Ethan has never donated blood before. He was a little nervous because he almost fainted a couple of years ago during a blood draw at a doctor’s office,” said his mom who provided morale support for her son from a social distance.

“As a scout and student, giving back to local communities is very important to Ethan,” said his mom. “Our Christian faith calls for us to love and serve others – we are blessed and so proud of him that he wanted to help in such a meaningful way!”

Ethan agreed and said he would do anything to help others who had this illness. “I’m in this situation for a reason – and it must be to help!” he said.

Story and photo by Sue Thesenga/American Red Cross

“The most important tool we all have is a positive outlook.”

Red Cross disaster mental health expert shares mental health insights for times of isolation, stress, and uncertainty.

When disaster strikes or when a crisis develops we can find ourselves challenged physically, emotionally and mentally.  While we are often very good at taking care of our physical needs, in those hard times we often neglect our mental health. 

And that’s where the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health team comes in.  These volunteers are highly trained and qualified helpers that can assist with keeping us mentally strong and emotionally stable during hard times. 

Terry Crandall knows all too well the challenges we are all facing with COVID-19 related stay-at-home and quarantine orders.  “Our biggest challenge right now is probably isolation and the ongoing effect of not having our usual social support network.” 

Mr. Crandall leads the Disaster Mental Health team for the Minnesota & Dakotas Region of the Red Cross.  Terry, who is a Licensed Professional Counselor and an Adjunct Professor at the University of South Dakota, tells us that he started volunteering with the Red Cross in 2006. 

Since then he says with a laugh that he has now, ‘drank the Kool-Aid’ in reference to his passion for the Red Cross mission and his commitment to helping people in need of mental health help.  “That is sometimes just a shoulder to lean on and someone to tell their story to.”   

Terry believes that not having access to the people we love like our family and friends leaves most people feeling isolated and without their usual support system.  He says that feeling of isolation can lead to despair when facing this pandemic. 

“People are experiencing very normal emotional and mental reactions to this situation.  They are missing their families and friends, they are worried for kids and their studies.  Kids are missing their friends and social networks like their clubs and teams. There is uncertainty about when, or if, school will be back in session.  Proms and senior events will likely not happen for this class.” 

For almost all of us work has changed.  For those left out of work by this virus there are huge amounts of anxiety about the future.  Money concerns seem to touch everyone.   

Compounding these worries are the stressors that can come from having what may feel like, “just too much family time.”  Terry recommends families keep to a regular schedule and try to stay engaged in activities that are creative and can offer some exercise.   

Terry says that using positive imagery, relaxation techniques, and visualization tools can all help make you more resilient and able to cope in a healthier way.  “The most important tool we all have is a positive outlook.  If we can stay focused on the fact that this isn’t forever and that there will be a much better day to come, we can keep all of us mentally strong.”   

The Red Cross guide to recovering emotionally recommends several tools to help keep a positive outlook. ‘Remind yourself of how you’ve successfully gotten through difficult times in the past. Reach out when you need support, and help others when they need it.’ 

You can get disaster tools, information about recovery, and guides to coping with the stress of the COVID-19 crisis at the Red Cross website.  You can start here: shelteringathome. For more about the emotional stresses and tools that can help  you can visit this guide:  recoveringemotionally.

Are you ready to join the team?  The American Red Cross accomplishes our mission with over 90% volunteers.  We need you.  Your community needs you.  You feel the need to help make this better.  Please consider adding your talents to our team. 

If you are interested in joining the Disaster Mental Health team please see the requirements and opportunities by visiting:  mentalhealthvolunteer

To reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746. 

Story by Ray Guest, Red Cross volunteer

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!