As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, hopefully many of us will have an opportunity to look back and reflect on what we are grateful for.
For the American Red Cross, this year has been incredibly challenging. Over the last twelve plus weeks, our humanitarian organization has launched wide-ranging relief operations to three back-to-back and historic hurricanes, horrific shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, and the terrible wildfires that swept through California.
As you can imagine, there hasn’t been much down time for anyone at the Red Cross since Hurricane Harvey made landfall on August 25. But recently, I was fortunate enough to spend an evening with my brother. The two of us are incredibly close, and I still consider him my best friend many years after our childhood together in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
The wonderful thing about my brother is that when we’re together we don’t talk about work. We talk about politics, sports, family, but not work. But during our most recent visit, one of the first things that he said to me was, “you look exhausted.”
I told him that the reason I was exhausted was the stress of my job. Over the last few weeks I had overseen relief efforts to help hundreds of thousands in the path of destruction, done scores of TV interviews – including one from the Oval Office –found myself on the speed-dial of several governors and senators, and the Red Cross was battling a seemingly endless number of rumors on social media. But ultimately, I told my brother, all this stress comes with the privilege of being part of the American Red Cross.
After hearing this he asked me a simple question, “So where does the part about it being a ‘privilege’ come in?”
I had to collect my thoughts for a moment before answering. Then I explained to him that, in the midst of the constant stream of horrific scenes Americans had been witnessing on their televisions over the past few months – from victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, to the devastation of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, to the incomprehensible shootings in Las Vegas and Texas, to the deadly wildfires in California – it was all too easy for people to feel helpless. As part of the American Red Cross, I knew that the work we were doing was making a real and lasting difference for people impacted by these awful events, and that was and is a tremendous privilege.
When I think about the depth and the breadth of all the American Red Cross has done since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the remarkable donors, volunteers, employees and partners who’ve made this work a reality.
In the last nine weeks, more than 18,500 trained Red Cross disaster workers – 91 percent of them volunteers – have been mobilized to support disaster relief operations across the country. These dedicated men and women have worked alongside our community and government partners to provide more than 1.3 million overnight stays in emergency shelters. That’s more overnight shelter stays than the Red Cross has provided over the past 5 years combined. With the help of partners, we’ve also served more than 10.5 million meals and snacks and distributed more than 6 million emergency relief items to people in need. In addition, we’ve provided more than 214,000 mental health and health services to care for those affected and delivered more than $229 million in direct financial assistance to over 573,000 households severely impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
Despite this massive level of disaster response activity, the Red Cross has still managed to carry out the other aspects of our vital mission in communities across the country and around the world. We’re still responding to local disasters, including more than 60,000 home fires each year; we’re still collecting blood; we’re still teaching people how to save lives through health and safety courses like First Aid, CPR and Water Safety; we’re still providing emergency services and comfort to the members of our military, our veterans and their families; and we’re still helping our neighbors abroad with disaster preparedness and disease prevention activities.
Even after more than nine years with the American Red Cross, I find that our mission continues to touch me in very personal ways. During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, I visited 6 different shelters. Within the same half hour, I visited with a 3-day old, 5-pound baby – and I held the hand of an 85-year old woman who was brought into our shelter in a hospital bed. I watched young children squealing with delight as they played games in the middle of our shelter or stood in line to get snow cones. And I met with grateful parents who had nowhere else to turn except the American Red Cross.
While I’m no stranger to disaster at this point, I never get used to looking into the eyes of people who have lost everything. They’re both frightened and incredibly brave at the same time. I also never get used to the tremendous generosity and selflessness of our volunteers and donors – both financial and blood. Their ongoing support of the Red Cross is saving lives every day. Not many people can make that claim. And THAT is why it really is a privilege to be part of the American Red Cross.