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Just call on me: When you need a hand, local Red Cross volunteers are here

Posted: April 2, 2014 - 12:00am
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Red Cross volunteer Karen Petersen works during the Thorne River flood on Prince of Wales Island.   PHOTO COURTESY OF KAREN PETERSON | AMERICAN RED CROSS OF ALASKA
PHOTO COURTESY OF KAREN PETERSON | AMERICAN RED CROSS OF ALASKA
Red Cross volunteer Karen Petersen works during the Thorne River flood on Prince of Wales Island.

So you’re retired, you kick up your feet, untuck your shirt not caring if it’s buttoned straight, and sip a drink by the pool. Or you could build radio antennas, teach fire extinguisher classes, serve in a community emergency response team and practice disaster relief simulations as a Red Cross volunteer, like retired Juneau resident Scott Novak.

Novak carries with him a “no worries” mantra; he’s been preparing to be prepared all through his retirement years and then some.

Though Novak was living in Juneau when Hurricane Katrina devastated areas around the Gulf of Mexico, his first time serving for the American Red Cross was at a disaster relief shelter for the hurricane victims in Salt Lake City.

“I just happened to have a job that allowed me to leave for a couple of weeks,” said Novak, who assisted with the Salt Lake City shelter as a night shift security officer for two weeks.

It was a local disaster — the Gastineau Apartment Building fire in 2012 — that encouraged Bill Hodge to begin volunteering for the Red Cross.

“When I went into donate (money) after the Gastineau fire, I asked them if they needed any help and they said “Yes,” so I became a volunteer,” he said.

Michell Daku, the Alaska American Red Cross district director, said the Gastineau Apartment fires showcased why communities benefit from trained volunteers.

“American Red Cross was on scene within a couple of hours, setting up a shelter at Centennial Hall to provide support, shelter, food and resources after such a devastating disaster,” she said. “Red Cross volunteers worked with the clients for days, offering hope and reassurance that things would be OK.”

Novak and Hodge work at the local level, on what’s called a Disaster Action Team, or DAT.

“DAT members are volunteers that have been trained through the American Red Cross to respond to mass disasters like house fires, industrial fires, mudslides, avalanches, severe winter storms and other natural or man-made disasters — all of which have affected the Southeast region in the past three years,” Daku explained.

The Southeast Red Cross office has one disaster specialist, a part-time health and safety instructor, 10 active volunteers in Juneau and five each in Haines, Sitka, Prince of Wales and Ketchikan.

DAT members are most commonly dispatched to house fires, which according to Hodge are the number one disaster in America. He said fires are even more common in Juneau, where many people rely on wood stoves and run space heaters.

According to Roger Rettig, the Southeast Red Cross disaster specialist, a volunteer is on-call 24 hours, seven days a week. The on-call volunteer carries a particular phone and a handbag kit for week-long shifts. When a disaster occurs, a representative from the city or fire department calls the Red Cross cell phone.

“We sit down with a client, interview them, find out how the Red Cross can help them the best,” Hodge said. “We find out what their needs are and how we can address them.”

He said the Red Cross can provide victims — or clients as they are referred to — with a client assistance card which allows them to replace essential items like clothing. Essentially, Hodge said, the volunteers act as a liaison between the clients and other organizations that provide assistance. Volunteers help clients receive hotel vouchers for three days, work with a local animal shelter if the clients have pets that need temporary housing and also assist with activities such as boarding up windows following house fires.

“Basically we’re there to help,” Hodge said. “We’re the fist people there reaching out saying, ‘What can we do to help you get through this terrible time?’ Sometimes it’s just wrapping a blanket around them and letting them know someone cares.”

The Red Cross accomplishes their mission in more ways than responding to emergencies.

“We do disaster preparedness education, speaking to groups of the importance of being prepared,” Novak explained. “A group will come to us and say, ‘We’re interested in having this training.’ (It may be) a school, church or any community group that’s interested. Then we go out and offer a class. It’s basically a fairly short presentation about the things you need to do to be prepared to respond to a disaster.”

Besides monthly meetings, the local volunteers maintain a level of training through various courses and exercises. A two-day course began Saturday and ended today. Saturday’s class focused on training and review, and Wednesday consisted of simulating the process of creating a shelter scenario for up to 100 people. Though Wednesday’s training occurred at a pre-identified location at the University of Alaska Southeast, a real-life scenario would include selecting the shelter location most appropriate for the disaster, as well as outfitting it with beds, food, interviewing clients and other activities which were all part of the simulation exercise.

The Red Cross’s ability to provide prompt assistance is due, in part, to the fact that it is virtually completely “staffed” by volunteers, so donations, monetary and otherwise, directly support clients.

“I’m particularly drawn to the Red Cross because of their ratio of donations towards workers,” Hodge said. “Over 95 percent is volunteer, so your money doesn’t go to supporting an infrastructure, it goes to helping disasters. That was particularly pleasing to me.”

Daku said that the disaster response and recovery volunteer participants have doubled in the past year, however, more volunteers are still needed.

“To sustain a shelter for 100 to 1,000 people around the clock requires a trained volunteer work force,” Rettig said. He added that the standard in the more rural areas of Alaska is to be able to provide a shelter for up to seven days of supplies, versus the three-day criteria for the Lower 48.

“Our funding is strictly donor-contributions,” Rettig said. “We don’t get money from the government.”

Novak believes everybody has an inherent desire to pitch in and help those in trouble.

“We just don’t always have the time or the ability,” Novak said. “But when that time and ability comes around, I think most people would always step up and help someone else.”

Rettig said one volunteer he knows said she considers hugs from clients as a form of payment. “For (me) and the volunteers it is a passion, it’s helping our neighbors, our community.”

“Both on a local, national and international level, it’s a symbol of hope and relief for millions of people and I’m proud to be part of it,” Hodge said. “No matter how much or how little time or money you have to give, do it. It’s one of the most worthwhile organizations in the world. Depending on your position in life, all of it is needed.”

If you are interested in more information, would like to become a volunteer, take a disaster preparedness or DAT training class, or to make a donation, stop by the local office at 3225 Hospital Drive Suite 202 or visit the website at www.redcross.org/alaska.

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