Thursday, September 30, 2010
Today, I experienced what a classroom cannot teach, a business plan cannot dictate, and what a boondoggle meeting in Hawaii cannot accomplish. Today, I became aware of what it really means to be a part of the Red Cross. Today, I responded to my first fire with the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago
In the white Ford Explorer emblazoned with the Red Cross logo, I sat with anticipation. What am I going to see? Am I cut out for this? Where are we going? All of these questions ran through my mind with Usain Bolt-like agility. When we arrived on the scene we were surprised to see three fire trucks, an ambulance, and three police cars on the street. This has got to be more than just a single home fire, I thought. Jackie, Lauren, Cary, and I arrived at the scene and began to look for the damage. From the outside of the two-story house it was unclear as to how bad the damage was. We waited for the all-clear by the Chicago Fire Department before we stepped into the soot filled home.
During this time, we met Robert James and Loistene Smith, a married couple who live with two grandchildren, Latijia and Josh, and Loistene’s 22 year old daughter Precious Yarbrough in the home that caught fire earlier that morning. It was amazing to see how many people came by their house today to lend them support. Even a school bus driver maneuvered his way down the narrow street to stop and ask Loistene if she was alright. Luckily, everyone was able to escape from the home before the fire got out of control. Their basic necessities and valuables however, were not so lucky. After what felt like an eternity we were granted access to the home, and we soon realized the amazing extent of damage.
I stand in silence and internalize the scene around me. A soiled and soot covered teddy bear under a burned down bunk bed. A fedora hanging on the wall next to a family portrait of Martin Luther King Junior’s family. A gold necklace with a heart pendant motionless on a desk that is black and dusty. Metal screws, wood pieces, peeled-back wallpaper. The soot, dripping down from the one white wall left in the home, is everywhere. I can smell the smoke. I can taste the smoke, on the tip of my tongue and in the back of my throat.
I re-engage with what’s going on around me. We walked through the home and finally got an accurate assessment of the damage. As our Disaster Services coordinator talked with the family, Loistene's grandson became eager to play. He egged Lauren and I on to play with him, and soon after we were running after each other up and down the street and playing hide and seek.
In the United States, the Red Cross responds to more than 63,000 fires each year. That’s 170 fires a day, and to put that into perspective, the Red Cross responds to a fire every 8 minutes. Here in Chicagoland, the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago responds to 3-4 fires daily, and provides the victims of these disasters with not only logistical support, but emotional support.
Today, although I may not have stopped the fire or heroically rescued the children from the blaze, I walked away from that house knowing that I did something amazing. The opportunity to be a part of someone’s healing process is a privilege. Sporting the Red Cross emergency vest is a privilege. I am inspired by the events that unfolded today. I am happy that I was there to lend support to the family when they needed it, and I am even happier to be a interning for an organization that is dedicated to the welfare of those in its immediate community, and the world over.
I sit in silence and I internalize the scene around me. A desktop computer and a keyboard. Notes in a black portfolio. I am an intern and volunteer for the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. My name is Zachary Zimmerman, and I am a Red Cross Communicator.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
"I thought I could put it out," she told me. "But I just couldn't, so I got out. I just got out."
As she told me what happened, she held up her pants, which were clearly too big for her. She wore what looked like her father's shoes, which she grabbed in haste as she ran out of the house. Soon, a friend, Letisha, came by to give her a change of clothes -- flip-flops and khaki shorts that fit better but still hung off of her small frame. Broken glass covered the steps, so friends cautioned her to be careful.
She whispered to Letisha about how sad she was that she lost most of her clothes. Her Senior prom dress was destroyed.
Letisha responded, "Your clothes might be OK once they're cleaned." It was clear in Michelle's eyes that she was thinking about the treasured pink and black dress she had recently worn to her Senior prom.
"And thank God for life. You lived," Letisha added with enough enthusiasm to make Michelle laugh.
They asked about what the Red Cross does. I explained that, in Chicago, most of the disasters we respond to are fires. I told them that they were the 3rd family we'd helped today and it wasn't yet noon. I explained how it is supported through donated funds and volunteers.
"I'd like to do that." Letisha said to me. "I'd like to volunteer." Michelle clung to her arm and smiled. She'd be a good volunteer.
I suggested that maybe they could volunteer together and gave them my contact information so we could talk more about it after the ash settled.
As I was about to leave, Michelle and Letisha unexpectedly... feverishly... hugged me.
On my office wall at the Chicago Red Cross headquarters, I have a quote posted that I read every day to remember my purpose here. "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other," it says.
I think Michelle and Letisha would agree.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Our Red Cross volunteers provided shelter, clothing, comfort kits and food for the large family and were able to help Tiffany with referrals for long term assistance with housing options. To find out how you can help and how your donations will be spent, check out Chicagoredcross.org/donate.
Friday, September 24, 2010
Early in the morning on September 20th a fire erupted on the back porch of an apartment building in Chicago. Flames licked the vulnerable wooden stairs leading up to the top floor, destroying everything in its path. The fire alarms did not sound. Everyone slept on. Upon this realization, one person ran to the first floor entrance and push the buzzers yelling to those inside that they need to evacuate the building. He saved everyone’s life that day and is a true hero in my eyes.
There was no trace of flames on the exterior of the building as I walked past the policemen with my camera. I thought, this couldn’t have been a fire disaster- nothing is damaged.
While standing by the main entrance waiting to enter the building a gentleman approached one of the Red Cross responders to say thank you for being there to help and for providing assistance to fire victims. Only then did I realize, as I watched the man walk away, how influential the Red Cross fire response team is in Chicago and how many people we actually help throughout the year.
As I walked up the interior stairs of the building the damage became more severe; wall plaster laden the floors and water pooled on the landings. I looked around to take everything in: the half broken down door laying on it’s side mocked the residence, shouting ‘security no longer resides here, comfort is no longer welcome’; the bright white clouds from outside reflected themselves in the shards of glass that layered the carpet; the smell of burning wood and smoke hovered in the air like an oppressive cloud, never ceasing to evaporate.
In the last apartment the only things standing were the skeleton-like walls. I took another step deeper into the black hole that someone once called home. Nothing. Everything was completely destroyed. Black soot settled on every surface leaving no trace of life. In a child’s room the juxtaposition of an innocent toy lying next to scraps of wood and ash almost made me laugh because it should never belong there amongst that kind of destruction. I could try to describe what I saw but could never do it justice. In that moment I was filled with anger and a sadness, which consumed my heart. How could this happen, I thought? Why does this happen?
No one should ever have to experience that kind of loss. But fires do happen. And no matter how much pain it leaves in its wake I now know that being a part of an organization that allowed me to help is one of the greatest gifts I could receive.
These incidences occur every day and affect hundreds of people Chicago. What these people went through is irrevocable and only now, after seeing what I saw, do I truly understand why it is part of my job as a Red Cross Volunteer to spread hope to those who have lost everything.
My name is Kendall E. Knysch and I am a volunteer at the Red Cross Chicago chapter.
For the first time, the Red Cross invited people to participate in our free International Humanitarian Law class from their home computers, and a virtual participant posted this tweet shortly after our Wednesday night class. She was alluding to a conversation from the class that basically went like this:
In-class participant: "So you're telling me that the Red Cross delegate goes into an enemy prison, tells them all of the ways that they're violating International Humanitarian Law and they have no army or court or means to enforce the law?"
Instructor: "Basically, yes. Humanitarian Law as laid out in the Geneva Conventions is largely enforced through the notion that we are neutral and enforce it for everyone, including 'their own.' The 'enemy,' is receiving the same benefit for their prisoners of war in another prison. Reciprocity, confidentiality and neutrality motivate detaining authorities to comply."
In-class participant: "Who protects the Red Cross delegate? The UN? Police? Security? Do they carry a gun?"
Instructor: "It is only the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem that protects them."
Now, what you need to know about me is that I'm a marketer, by trade. The Red Cross emblem is my logo to protect. To hear a conversation like this imparts a tremendous sense of responsibility and pride for me as the Director of Marketing and Communications at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. My logo keeps Red Cross delegates safe, here and abroad. The red cross logo communicates to people, regardless of the language they speak, that "relief is offered to everyone here" with the same level of recognition as men or women's bathroom sign. It evokes a deep emotional response in the people who've been touched by it. Occasionally, I get seated in exit rows on planes, perhaps because airline workers assume I'm comfortable in a disaster when they see my Red Cross lapel pin. There's a strange and mysterious power in our emblem.
I was a speaker at a Social Media Club of Chicago event last night. I discussed, "How has the Red Cross logo come to bear so much power and influence?" My opinion is that it is largely through a long history of action in place of words and shared values in place of rhetoric. But I don't know for sure. I told the social media experts in the room that I suspect people who encounter our emblem "feel heard and held when they need it most." I insinuated that our credibility may be helped by admitting to and learning from failures to better address the next disaster.
Prior to my speaking engagement at the Social Media Club, I attended a remarkable 2-day Cusp Conference that explores "the design of everything." I heard about innovative programs that are using design principles to make the world a better place. Projects like Design for America at Northwestern University are revolutionizing how we solve the world's most complex and gnarly problems.
So, in less than 48 hours, 1) I witnessed stellar examples of how better design can change our world at the Cusp Conference. 2) I discussed at the Social Media Club of Chicago how loyalty to an emblem or logo can play a part in preserving the dignity of humanity. And 3) I was reminded by our class Tweeter that in the hotbed of American violence -- communities governed by gang warfare -- Red Cross delegates might be understood by the people with whom they must negotiate for peace should the need ever arise.
And all of this got me thinking... What if the brilliant designers at Cusp applied their expertise to this goal: design a way to mobilize everyone who wants to help during a disaster in a way that makes the best possible use of their skills.
Here in Chicago, alone, the Red Cross respond to 3-4 home fires every day that require not only volunteers, but also greater awareness of fire risks. Before disasters like fires and floods occur, we need to motivate people to prepare for the unthinkable. People separated by war -- soldiers and refugees -- need to be connected through the Chicago Red Cross with their loved ones. We also need ambassadors who will help us explain that this response effort requires funding since we are not a govenment-funded entity.
Among the materials at your disposal in the design process:
- loyalty to a relief mission
- social media as an activation tool
- your design expertise
- an organization that might be willing to beta test your idea because we're used to dealing with the unexpected and disaster.
Would you be willing to help with that? If so, let's talk.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
We’re expecting a full moon tonight.
I’m a little scared.
The Roman goddess of the moon was named Luna, prefix of the word “lunatic” and I don’t care about fancy scientific evidence to the contrary, I’ve seen people get a little crazy when the moon is more “Cow Jumped Over the Moon” than “Mac Tonight”. Yes I’m likely aging myself with this reference to Mr. Tonight and I apologize for the digression (if you missed the 1980s McDonald’s advertising campaign featuring a crescent moon man wearing sunglasses and playing piano, here it is on YouTube.. )Just that fact that I’ve included this last reference is perhaps, in itself, evidence that the full moon makes people a little loco.
The lunar effect has been blamed for everything from increased visits to the emergency room and violence to voting patterns and of course vampire transformations. Full moons make me nervous not just from a personal perspective but also because I work for a disaster relief organization and I’m hoping there’s no correlation between disasters and the cycle of the moon. Is there? Does anyone know?
I’m crossing my fingers that Thursday will be peaceful but just in case I’m going to have my emergency radio, flashlight, rain boots, granola bars, cell phone charger and the phone number for an extra babysitter at the ready because you just never know.
For me, a tiny bit of fear is a good motivator and shamefully, sometimes what it takes, in this world of competing priorities, to takes steps to get prepared for the unexpected. I’m already well on my way with my grab and go disaster supplies kit, stashed in the closet next to my back door, but there are a few items in there that need some TLC. If a few self-imposed scare tactics are what it’s going to take for me to finally replace the batteries in my flashlight so be it.
Martha Carlos is a communicator at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. She is not superstitious but does avoid black cats, opening umbrellas indoors and walking under ladders because that’s just tempting fate.
Wikipedia on the lunar effect
Thursday, September 16, 2010
The fire might have been small but the damage was evident. The inside of the house looked as though a tornado had consumed all of the belongings and then whipped them out in random directions. The smell of smoke and burning plastic seemed to hang in the air as I walked through what seemed like a reoccurring dream. Everything about the scene reminded me of my past, especially the woman standing by my side showing me the damage. I started to get flashbacks as I inspected the damage through the lens of my camera.
On December 23, 2007, I awoke to my three story farm house engulfed in flames. As the fire alarm went off, I could have sworn it was just my morning alarm buzzing to remind me that I had to catch the bus in thirty minutes. But it was 3 AM. Then the door swung open and smoke poured into my room along with my brother screaming that we had to get outside. Adrenaline pushed me out of bed, into my rubber ducky bathrobe, and down the stairs. Red and yellow consumed my eyes.
As I continued to walk around and observe, family members and friends were moving things in and out of the house before the landlord came to board it up. Daunting reptile cages with tarantulas inside were being passed back and forth. Confused, I headed upstairs to the second floor to uncover the origin of these pets. When I reached the top of the stairs, I was met with more torn doors and holes in the ceiling from where the fire department attempted to unblock the ventilation.
When a disaster hits, we all want to help the victims. As human beings, it’s in our blood. As I looked at the victims of this Chicago fire, I knew I had to be there to comfort them. I could see the pain in their eyes and it resonated within me.
I can think of a million reasons why my house burning down was a positive experience but that is something that comes with time. All I could do was comfort the family and reassure them that everything would be okay in the end. Even though I played a small role on the road to recovery, I will never forget the family, the scene and the atmosphere of my first field reporting assignment.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Trepidation. Anxiety. Horror. Panic. All of these emotions flooded the minds, hearts, and bodies of American citizens at 8:45 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, nine years ago today. 2,983 lives were lost that day, and the fear from that day still resonates strongly within the depths of our hearts. Soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the United States declared war, The War on Terror.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, and Red Cross chapters across America have worked closely with our military to connect our troops with their families since the 1800s. Just like every other war that US has been involved in, the American Red Cross has been there to support the families of soldiers who have been deployed overseas since the beginning of The War on Terror. From financial assistance to coping with deployment classes, the Red Cross offers comprehensive and effective methods for soldiers to be connected with their loved ones back home.
Today I was assigned to attend an orientation for soldiers returning from the Middle East at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in the heart of the Illinois Medical District. The Red Cross of Greater Chicago sponsored today’s orientation by providing coffee and donuts for the more than 130 soldiers in attendance.
I had the great pleasure of meeting two individuals who served with the US Military in Afghanistan. First Lieutenant James Merritt and First Lieutenant Amy Azeez have witnessed how the Red Cross serves our military forces. Lieutenant Azeez, who grew up in Chicago, told me the story of a soldier from her troop that got into an awful motorcycle accident. The soldier riding the motorcycle was in critical condition, and needed additional blood to survive. Lt. Azeez informed me that the blood used in the soldier’s transfusion came directly from a Red Cross blood drive. That blood ended up saving his life.
Blood drives, a well-known service that the Red Cross coordinates and provides, is just one program from our multi-faceted commitment to our troops overseas. The Red Cross also provides an emergency communication outlet for soldiers that relays messages between the soldier and their family. When a family member has fallen ill or has passed away, a soldier's family can send a message to him or her, and the Red Cross will relay it to wherever the soldier is stationed. “The Red Cross acts as a gatekeeper between us and our families back home,” First Lieutenant James Merritt tells me. Lt. Merritt, also from Chicago and attending graduate school at Purdue, described for me that a soldier in his troop in Afghanistan received a Red Cross message that his grandfather had fallen ill. Within hours, that soldier was cleared by his commanding officer to head home and visit his grandfather before he passed. Lt. Merritt explained that if a soldier receives a Red Cross message they immediately get priority placement on flights back the US, and that the soldier is given ample time to be at home and cope with their family. For Lieutenant Merritt, the emergency communication service from the Red Cross is something that has directly impacted him and his family.
“I was training as a combat medic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio when I was told that the Red Cross had a message for me,” Lt. Merritt recalls. The message contained news that his grandmother had passed away. Within a few hours, Lt. Merritt was on his way home to be with his family during that time of mourning.
Lt. Azeez and Lt. Merritt both explained to me that without the Red Cross, the process a soldier would have to endure to make his or her way home would be long and arduous. Both Lieutenants had looks of astonishment when recounting how fast and effective the Red Cross services to the armed forces were.
As an intern with the Red Cross of Greater Chicago, I am learning everyday new ways that the Red Cross is dedicated to helping people around the world. These stories from Lieutenant Azeez and Liteutenant Merritt make me even more grateful to be a part of such an amazing organization.
Zachary Zimmerman is a Marketing and Communications Intern for the Red Cross of Greater Chicago
Thursday, September 09, 2010
I opened the door and found 11 eager individuals assembling plastic mannequins used for practicing CPR techniques. Before the class began the instructor asked each of the 11 students to introduce themselves, and explain why they decided to take this course. The stories from each person were diverse and multi-faceted, but everyone agreed that a principal reason why they enrolled is because they wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. As the stories made their way across the room, one in particular grabbed my immediate attention; the story from a girl by the name of Jahan Nurhussein.
“I have two jobs, but I still make sure to find time to volunteer,” Jahan tells me. Jahan decided to work with the Red Cross of Greater Chicago because she wanted to find something to do that would give back to her immediate community. She described to me that it’s in her personality to actively seek out volunteer opportunities, and when she heard about this program from AmeriCorps, she couldn’t resist signing up.
Jahan’s story, one of true heroism, exemplifies just how important it is to be CPR certified. Jahan and her friend were running an errand at her local church when suddenly she saw a crowd of people standing in a circle in the church lobby. Jahan, curious as to what was going on, hurried over to the scene. She saw a man laying on the ground unconscious, and a woman trying to resuscitate him. Jahan had been certified to perform CPR, and when she noticed the woman performing CPR on the man was doing so incorrectly, she knew she had to step in. “I saw that she wasn’t supporting the man’s neck and was blocking the airway,” Jahan recalls. Jahan asked the woman to step away politely and told her that she knew the proper way to administer CPR. The woman agreed, and Jahan went to work. Jahan started giving CPR to the man, and after what seemed like an eternity an ambulance arrived. An EMT approached Jahan and told her that if she had not delivered CPR to this man that he certainly would have died before the ambulance arrived at the scene.
The Red Cross of Greater Chicago offers a wide array of free preparedness classes to Chicagoans who are interested in being able to aid in an emergency, whether that means performing CPR or knowing how to effectively evacuate people from a burning building. Jahan’s story serves as an excellent testament to how important it is to get certified to perform basic live saving procedures like CPR. Get certified. Save a life. It’s that easy.
Zachary Zimmerman is a Marketing and Communications intern at the Red Cross of Greater Chicago
Meanwhile, Hurricane Earl was spinning like a sawmill blade toward the Outer Banks, and D.C.’s national headquarters (HQ) were making plans of their own.
Mid-week, I got the deployment call to go “somewhere on the eastern seaboard, probably Cape Cod” and help work with national and local media. Together, we would inform people how to prepare for the worst and help in the areas that would be hit. I would fly out first thing Thursday morning, and expect Earl to strike the Cape the evening of my birthday. Within minutes of national HQ’s call, Chicago Red Cross co-workers and volunteers began helping me prepare to deploy.
One tweeted, “Happy Birthday. I got you a Hurricane.”
I cancelled the party, triaged the coming week's work, and packed within hours of recieving the call. Earl was to become my first deployment and my first hurricane.
We were lucky in Cape Cod. By the time, Earl approached New England, he was tired, distant and forgiving. Besides the flurry of media and an evening of wind and rain, we came out unscathed Saturday morning. The work volunteers had done to prepare to shelter more than 10,000 people in Cape Cod, was patiently and cheerfully unwound. Cots were collapsed and stored. Shelters were closed and host partners thanked. New friends exchanged email addresses in time to grab lunch and enjoy a sunny Labor Day weekend.
On Saturday, several local Cape Codders and vacationers asked me throughout the day whether or not all of that preparation – the largest shelter operation Cape Cod had ever planned – had felt like a waste.
Not at all. Not to any one of us. While somewhat obvious, people take for granted that as a Red Cross volunteer you witness disasters. Whether it's a home fire in Chicago or a hurricane in New England, once someone who has lost everything desperately hugs you -- a stranger -- when they come into a shelter, you feel nothing but relief when a near-miss occurs.
The preparation wasn’t for nothing. It was practice for the next disaster. It was the proverbial "better than what could have been." It was an opportunity to develop friendships with other volunteers who have fat, juicy hearts, like the remarkable people from the Cape Cod Red Cross and the many others who were deployed along the seaboard.
Near-miss disasters are a great excuse to talk to strangers, like Joan Cook, about how we can work together to prepare. Joan has watched that Cape coastline erode and seen what hurricanes can do to the homes of her neighbors, so she’s found a good balance between being serious about taking precautions, while maintaining serenity as the storm approaches. Watch her story here.
For my birthday, instead of a hurricane, I got to experience a collective sigh of relief with other volunteers. I got to witness Joan's serenity – the kind that only comes preparation and life experience. I got a pretty great life experience of my own doing what I do best as a deployed Advanced Public Affairs Team volunteer.
For all of us, the sun shone brighter than usual on Saturday because nothing really happened Friday night. Do you want to know what that feels like? Learn about how to put your talents, gifts and experience to use as a volunteer for the Red Cross, and be sure to look me up and tell me about your first deployment.
Friday, September 03, 2010
Jackie was actually getting deployed to Cape Cod to help with media control as Hurricane Earl approached. Not only was it Labor Day weekend but it was Jackie’s birthday on Friday. Of course, regardless of my cries about her birthday party getting cancelled, Jackie was overly excited to go on her first deployment at the Red Cross. When I asked her why she was so eager to finally receive a field position, Jackie told me "I love people and, sometimes, hardship brings out their best. They behave like neighbors. I always feel privileged when I get to see it."
Nancy Cygan is another Chicago Red Cross volunteer that was deployed for Hurricane Earl. She told me that she had her FSI handbook in hand and was ready to report the financial statistics on the hurricane relief.
As a newcomer to the Red Cross, I knew that the Chicago Chapter helped out with national and international disaster relief. But finding out that Jackie and Nancy were actually getting deployed to the East Coast was way beyond my expectations for a local chapter. It is incredible to watch all of the chapters across the United States bond together and provide support towards an event that is honestly still up in the air. Hurricanes are known for their unexpected nature. Earl could hit this weekend as a mild rain storm (hopefully) or it could end up displacing families. The point is, even in times of uncertainty, Red Cross chapters are always ready to lend a helping hand regardless of the location (or planned birthday parties).
Follow Jackie on twitter@your_mssunshine for updates.
For now, it looks like things are calm before the storm on the Cape. Hopefully Hurricane Earl will weaken by the time it reaches New England. Please keep Jackie, Nancy, Red Cross volunteers and all people who may be affected by this storm in your thoughts for the weekend!
Lauren Snyder is an intern at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
For more information about how the American Red Cross is helping in Pakistan visit
See how Red Cross is doing their part to help Pakistan.