Red Cross worker: Volunteering ‘hits my heart’

By Emily Ulber

American Red Cross volunteer Kathleen Strong can remember comforting a family trying to piece their lives back together after flood waters had torn through their home.

“The water was coming up in their house, and the only thing the mother could think of was to get her kids out safe,” Strong said.

After she made sure her children were taken care of, she ran back into the house to save what she could, and found her sons’ baseball uniforms and Spiderman and Batman toys lying on the floor.

“She picked up the boys’ toys and their uniforms, and that’s all she had after their house flooded,” Strong said through tears. “Her main concern was that she had lost all of her pictures. I took her hand, and I held her, and I told her, ‘But you have your sons.'”

Strong, who is the disaster action team leader for the American Red Cross of South Central Kentucky, and several other volunteers were on hand June 28 at Greenwood High School for a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the arrival of a new disaster relief vehicle, a repurposed ambulance that Red Cross volunteers can use to serve victims of house fires, floods and tornadoes.

And in her time as a volunteer, Strong has witnessed each of those disasters. When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005 — killing thousands and leaving many more homeless, jobless or missing — Strong was one of the Red Cross volunteers on the scene.

“When I heard the cries for help, I could not ignore the need to help other people,” Strong said. “Along with my husband, Paul, we went to serve the people who had been impacted by the hurricane, and we have been doing this work ever since.”

Strong has responded to disasters all over the country, from Kentucky to Alabama to Florida.

“For me, the best part of the work is getting to know the people,” she said. “I believe in building a relationship with the people I help. The people I meet are just so happy to see us arrive with our vests on or that big red cross.”

She recalled meeting a 3-year-old girl whose home had been destroyed by a fire. The girl met the volunteers at the end of the driveway, waving her arms frantically and telling them about the flames that were “way, way up in the sky.”

They gave the girl a teddy bear and comfort kit, and went on to assess the damage caused by the fire and talk to her parents about what kind of financial help they could receive.

A few hours later, the girl walked up to her mother and said, “Mommy, I’m tired. Can we go home now?”

“She was only 3 years old,” Strong said. “She had no idea the house that had burned was hers…she just wanted to go home.”

“While we couldn’t give them their home back, we could at least give them financial assistance for food and clothing and a safe place to spend the night.”

Strong said volunteering “hits” her heart.

“It makes you feel wonderful, when you get that hug from that one person, or that mom breaks down — I have seen numerous husbands cry,” she said “They just need to share their story and it makes you feel so good that you were the one there to help them.”

The American Red Cross of South Central Kentucky has between 80 and 100 active volunteers, Executive Director Jennifer Capps said. They respond to local and national disasters, help out with blood drives and provide service for Armed Forces members. Volunteers also donate items for or work at the center’s food pantry, located at the chapter’s headquarters at 430 Center Street.

BIll Schlict, volunteer disaster chair for the American Red Cross of South Central Kentucky, has been with the Red Cross for ten years.

“What we want to be able to do is to find an interest that you have, something that you want to be able to do, and how we can dovetail that in with the mission of the Red Cross,” Schlict said.

Nurses and mental health workers are the organization’s greatest need, he said.

“But we’d like to have people trained and ready to deploy, either outside of our area or be able to take care of the families at home,” Schlict said.

Strong stressed how important it is for volunteers to go through training ahead of time — not on the scene of the disaster.

“Spontaneous volunteers are wonderful — we love them all — but unfortunately we are too busy to get our work started in a conflict,” she said. “We don’t have the time to train you then. We need you to be trained beforehand.”

Schlict encouraged potential volunteers to contact the Red Cross office to see how they can help.

“I just like helping folks, I like helping people, and I think it’s our responsibility to make sure people are trained when a disaster happens,” he said. “It will happen, and we need to be ready for it.”


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