Red Cross volunteer spotlight: Marilee of Marshall, Minnesota

When you see hope start to grow, that’s the most rewarding thing.

Marilee Thomas volunteers in many capacities with the Red Cross, including as a Disaster Action Team (DAT) member providing comfort and essentials for people after local disasters such as home fires or floods.

“Going on a DAT call, you never know what you’re going into,” says Marilee. “Typically, you’re meeting someone during what they’re probably going to remember as one of the worst times in their life.”

We were interested to hear more about her experience especially, as she says, “I can talk all day about the Red Cross because that’s what I love.”

Marilee Thomas, on the left, pictured with volunteer Amanda Schafer.

Have you deployed to national disasters? 

I went to Houston for flooding. I went to Kentucky for another flood; it was a very violent flash flood—that was different. I went to North Carolina. I was in Wilmington. I did a virtual deployment for South Dakota and I did casework review for them.  

What is your favorite part about volunteering with Red Cross? 

Doing casework is probably my most favorite thing, I always come back to casework. Starting out just listening to them, letting them tell their story, then making the connection of referrals or what we can do to help them so that they start on their path to recovery. And it’s very rewarding to see them—sometimes they’re upset, sometimes they’re still kind of in shock, trying to process things. But then, when you see hope start to grow, that’s the most rewarding thing.  

What memories of responses stand out to you?

In Houston, I’ll always remember this man that [said] “I’m sorry if this is too much information, but I don’t even have a pair of dry underwear.” Just the story of how he had taken in his niece—her father had recently passed away from cancer and her mom was going through foreclosure. So, he gave her a stable place to live—or so he thought. Then the flood came, and they eventually sat on their kitchen counter tops. He was nearly crying when he said she looked at him and asked if ‘we’re going to die’ and he didn’t know what to say to her.  

In Texas, we had gone into a restaurant to eat supper and as we left, all the people stood up and they applauded—we got a standing ovation! It was just nice to know that we were appreciated that much. We don’t ask for the recognition, but we were pleased that they were that happy about us being there to help. No matter what you do with the Red Cross, you’re going to make a difference in someone’s life.

We’re always looking for more volunteers to help their neighbors in need after disasters like home fires. Tuesdays this November (5, 12, 19 and 26) from 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m., the Red Cross is hosting informational calls to learn more about volunteering. Please email mnrecruit@redcross.org for call-in details or to set up a time that works for you.

Interview by Caroline Nelson/American Red Cross Minnesota Region

What’s a Red Cross dispatcher?

By Kaylee Beevers, American Red Cross intern

Across the United States, the American Red Cross has people who volunteer their time as dispatchers during Red Cross disaster responses. These volunteers help fulfill the Red Cross mission to reduce human suffering during emergencies. Red Cross dispatchers coordinate response teams that provide basic comfort and care to families after home fires and other disasters. These dispatchers serve their communities with care. This volunteer role is one of the most worthwhile ways to get active in the Red Cross. Below are brief portraits of five volunteers who serve as disaster response dispatchers for the Minnesota Red Cross region.

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Mike and Deb Hofmann, St. Cloud 
Based in central Minnesota, Mike and Deb Hofmann proudly serve together as Red Cross volunteer dispatchers. The couple met in high school and they currently living in Cold Spring. Mike has served the American Red Cross for 40 years through multiple volunteer positions and Deb has been with the organization as a dispatcher for 10 months. Some of the most rewarding parts of the job for the couple is knowing you can help people during their time of need and offer services. Deb says, “When they’re looking for a way to go, we give them a direction.” Their advice? If you want to get involved, connect with your local Red Cross chapter.

Dunder 1Diane Dunder, Duluth
After retiring as a health and physical education teacher, Diane Dunder decided to take on the volunteer role as a Red Cross disaster relief dispatcher. Dunder says she was graced with “the best instructors who knew what they were doing and were very well informed about the job.” Some of the role’s challenges in her area,  she says, are not having enough field responders as well as other dispatchers. “We all have other things going on in our lives and yet more help would be appreciated.” One of Dunder’s greatest rewards while serving as a dispatcher was helping an elderly woman after a house fire. The victim had health issues and Dunder spent several days following up and working with healthcare and mental healthcare professionals to make sure that the woman was safe. “Being a dispatcher is a great way to volunteer and keeps you educated,” says Dunder.

Joe ReinemannJoe Reinemann, Mankato
Stationed in the southwest Red Cross chapter in Mankato, Joe Reinemann has been a volunteering dispatcher for more than a year. Reinemann usually works as a dispatcher during night shifts that start from 4:30 to midnight or from midnight to 8 am. Reinemann, who helped create the most recent dispatcher training materials, says “we’re upgrading our dispatcher manual. It’s extremely hands-on. It’s also one-on-one.” Reinemann felt nervous when he received his first dispatch call for Red Cross disaster response. He wanted to make sure that everything went well, but he says “the help and training are so great that sometimes you don’t even need any assistance from other dispatchers.” Reinemann’s advice to future volunteers is to “DO IT! It may be imitating to sign up, but it’s not complicated at all.”

Jan Reyers, Mpls-St.Paul Metro
Jan Reyers has served as a volunteer with the Red Cross for more than 35 years. Most currently, he’s disaster response dispatcher based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. Originally from White Bear Lake, Jan is proud to serve with the Red Cross alongside his wife Bonnie, who is also a dispatcher. “It’s always nice to have your wife as a dispatcher to help coach you along.” Being a dispatcher has taught Jan how to prioritize what he’s doing and to get it done correctly. Jan says the skills you need in order to become a dispatcher are communication, organization of information and people, and demonstration of empathy. Having served as a disaster responder in the field helps. “Get involved, sign up and be available to serve,” is Reyers’ advice to all anyone who wants to participate with Red Cross disaster relief teams.

Learn more
The need for Red Cross volunteer dispatchers is great. Last year the Red Cross supported more than 2,500 people affected by local disasters, which were mostly home fires. It’s a great way to serve and to meet new people. The current Red Cross dispatchers need to you step up and to get involved! More importantly, your neighbors, friends, family and thousands of others across this region need you. You never know when hard times will strike and you could lend a hand to someone who needs it the most. You could be the person who gives someone hope during a time of despair and a way to look toward a brighter tomorrow. To learn more, click here.

Fires do more than burn

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As part of a Red Cross disaster relief team, Rose Ingebrigtsen has responded to several house fires in northern Minnesota, including one in Virginia on January 26, 2016. Photo credit: Nancy Rogers/American Red Cross

By Rose Ingebrigtsen, an American Red Cross intern serving in northern Minnesota

When I saw that the American Red Cross serving Northern Minnesota was looking for a disaster services intern I was immediately interested. Even though I did not have any prior experience with the Red Cross personally, I knew it must be a great place to work. Why else would 330,000 volunteers nationwide serve for free? At this point I am mostly learning about disaster response and capacity building for The Pillowcase Project (a youth disaster preparedness program that the Red Cross is doing in partnership with Disney), which is great because I love doing hands on work and working directly with people.

That changed on Friday, January 22, when I was able to go on my first D.A.T. (Disaster Action Team) response with the Red Cross. I was a little nervous due to the fact I had never done anything like this before, but I was lucky enough to be accompanied by our local disaster program manager and seasoned D.A.T. captain Tony Guerra.

Before meeting with the affected resident, we drove to the address to see first-hand the condition of the burned house. Due to sketchy cell service and an unreliable maps app we couldn’t find the house, but it turned out there wasn’t much of a house left to find. Later, when we met our client, I quickly learned how hard it is to be really prepared for a house fire, and that no one knows exactly what to do after and much of their belongings are damaged or gone. This client was no different: all she had now were the clothes on her back and, luckily, her purse.

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In northern Minnesota local community members help the Red Cross provide basic comfort and care to people who have suffered a tremendous loss because of home fire and other disasters. Photo credit: Nancy Rogers/American Red Cross.

After we assessed our client’s needs and determined what steps she needed to take next we brought her a donated quilt, which she appreciated so much. Typically these quilts are made by local church groups, and then they are donated to disaster victims and military veterans through the Red Cross. Giving someone in need a quilt is, I think, fitting. Back in the day, imported fabric was expensive for the average person in America and it was difficult to find sufficient, affordable fabric locally. The solution was to salvage scraps of fabric and to sew together into a quilt. Today, after someone has a house fire family, friends, strangers, and the Red Cross come together like small pieces of fabric to help people rebuild their lives.

Before beginning this internship, I had no idea how many house fires there were in our area and the damage they do besides burning up the contents of your house: think smoke damage or water damage. Since my first response in January, I’ve had the opportunity to respond to two more fire disasters in northern Minnesota. I was struck by the devastation residents feel after losing much to all of their belongings, and how much Red Cross disaster relief is necessary and appreciated. I hope there will be fewer house fires in the area. But if there are more I hope I have the opportunity respond again, because I have enjoyed lending a hand and making a direct positive difference in someone’s life.