Thursday, August 02, 2007

How to help

It is probably a good thing we don't have cable, as we would have been glued to CNN last night to watch the tragedy of the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. As it was, M had to tear himself away from his computer to avoid spending the entire night fixated on it. Our friends and family who are located there are all accounted for, but we will continue to pray for those who aren't as fortunate.

I'm glad I do not work at the American Red Cross anymore, simply because it was hard to be more than just a witness to history. At the Red Cross, every disaster has profound implications beyond watching everything unfold on television. Fundraising, gathering volunteers to send out, staging emergency blood drives, and the public relations that go along with all those mean long, extremely busy hours. During 9/11, I remember feeling guilty as I took a five minute break to watch a TV as the first tower crumbled. We were so busy we assigned a staff member to watch the news and keep us updated when something "big" happened. We put in 18 hour days without batting an eye. It was important, it was worthwhile...we were helping our country. I'd go home at the end of the day with 9/11 fatigue, cringing when M wanted to watch the news and catch up on what had happened.

Then the negative publicity started about our fundraising policies. That was probably just as hard to take as the initial crisis. No one who works at a not-for-profit is in it for the money. No one, not even the CEO. We spent our donated money frugally, and with care, knowing we were stewards not just of money but also of the trust of the American people. The media (and one particularly crotchety senator) lambasted us for spending donated money to upgrade our telephone system (that was overwhelmed with calls and couldn't handle the volume) and purchase new vehicles (to replace those that had simply worn out while repairing the rest). In St. Louis, we sent our ERV (Emergency Response Vehicle) to New York after 9/11 and got it back a year later with considerably more miles, beat to hell and missing a side mirror. I'm not sure how to fix or replace vehicles like that if we don't use some of the donated money.

The complaint seemed to be that the Red Cross used its donated money however it saw fit, and if there was some left over from this disaster, it'd use it for the next. Somehow that got twisted around to be a bad thing, in that if people thought they were donating for 9/11, the money should only be used for 9/11. This raises a whole host of issues, not the least of which is it's damn near impossible to raise money for a future, unknown disaster. You can't combat the "it'll never happen here, to me" syndrome. We didn't spend money unneccesarily...just what was enough to get the job done right. What was left over went into reserves for the next disaster. The response time of the Red Cross is amazingly quick simply because of that reserve of funds, just waiting for something to happen. It needs to be there, and it needs to be replenished.

Even though I no longer work for the American Red Cross, I'm so proud of that organization that I could simply burst. I got tears in my eyes last night when, mere hours after the tragedy occurred, it was announced that the Red Cross had already set up operations next to the fallen bridge and was helping victims, their families, and the emergency responders. I thought about all my old colleagues who sprung into action, knowing just what to do. I thought about all their families who will be missing time with them as they mourn the nation's loss in Minnesota. (It had to be hard to be my spouse after 9/11, as I was not home very much, frequently tired, and stressed out beyond belief. Red Crossers' families bear the brunt of their loved ones' dedication to the cause.) I thought about my old friends who went through 9/11 with me, and are still struggling with the ramifications of Katrina, and who are undoubtedly willingly serving for this new disaster.

So, instead of watching this unfold on television, shaking your head and wondering, "I wish I could do something...", do something. Your donation might not help with this disaster, but it'll help with the next one, and the next. Don't have any money? Do something else. Your blood may not help a single victim in Minneapolis, but it could help up to three people right here in your neighborhood.

When things like this happen, the best thing to remember is that we are all truly in this together, and only through the generosity of our fellow countrymen do we ever emerge in triumph.


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