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

Caring people make the Red Cross go round

Story by Hildred Dungan, Red Cross Volunteer

Hildred_Dungan_Photo
“Everything the Red Cross does because of disasters–and we’ve had many this year ranging from Washington wildfires to South Carolina flooding–is done with help from caring people like us. “

I have been a volunteer for the Red Cross since 2003. Based in Minnesota, I first started after I took several classes and became a volunteer to go to local fires and help the families after the incident. We provided those affected some funds depending on the severity of the fire. In our office counselors helped them with a lot of referrals to places like VEAP and Bridging to replace their personal items that were lost. It was always a comfort to them when we were there, especially in the middle of the night.

To date, I have been on about 20 deployments which have ranged from Hurricane Katrina (my first one) on the Gulf Coast to Hurricane Sandy in New York, and most recently the wildfires in Idaho and Montana. A deployment is when you are sent to volunteer at some type of a disaster usually in another state.

When I was deployed to Katrina, another volunteer and I drove the Emergency Response Vehicle better known as the ERV to Montgomery, AL to pick up a load of water and snacks. The ERV is the size of an ambulance and it is a feeding unit to go out in affected areas and feed those who are without electricity and maybe running water. We did 2 meals a day with a Baptist group cooking big kettles of food and there were maybe 20 ERV’s delivering food and water to all parts of the area. We were first assigned to Mobile, AL and drove anywhere up to a 50 miles range to serve lunch. We would serve hot food from a serving window in the truck and when finished or the food was all gone we would head back to our base camp and do it all over for dinner. All the people we served would be so appreciative as they hadn’t had a hot meal for 3-5 days by then.

Another disaster I worked on was the 35-W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Another volunteer and I were in charge of seeing that there was hot food for the divers, police, federal officials when the first lady and again when the President came. We were only using 2 ERVs to send out food but had many volunteers who came to the Red Cross building to eat which is almost right under the bridge. I was able to go down on the river one evening and take food to the divers. Many days after the incident happened it was still a disturbing event to look up at the bridge and see cars still hanging there.

Hurricane Sandy was another unique disaster because of the size and how long the recovery went on and how large it was. By now I had changed from working with the feeding unit to the staffing unit. That job is to take care of the volunteers that are working on the disaster. They may be doing disaster assessment, mental health work, client casework and feeding those who are without a home, and most likely were staying in one of the many shelters the Red Cross operated across parts of New York, New Jersey and some of New England.

Because the job was so large for Sandy our Staff Services team was divided into several parts. I was the manager of all volunteers coming on the job and leaving the job. Some mornings we would have 50 new volunteers reporting to check in and get their assignments. The Red Cross headquarters where I worked for three weeks was two miles from my hotel. Every morning I walked past some interesting sights like the Good Morning America studio and the jumbotrons on Broadway. I picked up breakfast from a local deli or a street vendor and did the same on the walk back in the evening.

The night before Thanksgiving some of my group decided we would go up to Central Park and look at the parade floats. You cannot imagine the number of people who had decided to do the same thing. There were eight of us in our group and we had to hang on to the coat of the person in front of us or we would have been lost. We decided that we had walked about eight miles that evening, but it was fun. None us would do it again.

My most recent deployment was the Idaho and Montana wildfires. Half of my time there was spent in Kamiah, ID which is way up in the mountains. My workplace was the local American Legion. There was a reception center, called a MARC, that brought many groups into one place where those affected could get different kinds of help. There were 16 families that had totally lost their homes as they burned to the ground in a matter of minutes. Many others had lost part of their homes or all of their out buildings and a lot of cattle.

Everything the Red Cross does because of disasters–and we’ve had many this year ranging from Washington wildfires to South Carolina flooding–is done with help from caring people like us. The Red Cross is always grateful for our help. If any of you have 4-5 hours a week to volunteer, we always need more help. If it would not be your thing to go out to fires or to be deployed, there are simple jobs in the office that can be done, such as addressing birthday cards for volunteers. If you would like to become a Red Cross volunteer, just click here.