Sunday, September 11, 2011

Honor through helping

Ten years ago, I worked at the American Red Cross.  I was a measly little marketing specialist, doing my part to help my chapter raise money and awareness so we could help local families impacted by fire and flood, and send out volunteers and supplies to communities hit by natural disasters.  We trained folks in first aid and CPR and how to use an AED.  We helped people be prepared, and even learn how to swim.  Hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes were regular occurrences, and I was proud to work for a large, national organization that could quickly spin into action to help others while doing the daily work of making our communities safer.

Then, the morning of September 11, 2001, everything changed.

I was driving into work that morning, listening to NPR.  (Well, some things never change. I still listen to NPR every morning.)  One of the Morning Edition broadcasters noted between stories that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.  Given the tone, and its insertion between other news stories, I immediately dismissed it as an errant Cessna or other small aircraft simply because nothing else was even remotely imaginable.  A couple minutes later, the reporter came back to report a second airplane had hit the Towers.

That's when I knew there was something big going on, and my chapter, my organization, would be impacted.  Frustrated with the lack of reporting on NPR, I flipped first to KMOX, then to any station that wasn't playing music.  Up and down the dial, desperately trying to find a station that could tell me what the hell was going on.  No one could say, because no one knew.  I drove faster.

Then my cell phone started ringing.

I pulled into our parking lot, talking to whomever it was.  I can't remember who first called me, because it felt like I was on the phone for much of the next six months.  I hit the ground running that morning, much like my colleagues all across the country.  I don't remember many of the details, but a few points stick out.

We had to assign one person to simply stand and watch the television bank and alert the rest of us when something big had happened.  I will never forget her scream, "The tower is falling!"  It was the one moment that day when we all came to a stop and just watched in horror.

I couldn't find my husband.  He was traveling, and in Minnesota.  Although he was far away from Manhattan, I couldn't reach him.  Air travel was being canceled, and our world was falling apart, and I couldn't get a hold of him.  My MIL and I stayed in contact throughout that morning, "Did you hear from him?"  "No, did you?"  We tried to keep the panic from our voices, but weren't very successful.  We cried together on the phone, out of fear and with sympathy for the wounds inflicted on our country.  He was deep inside a 3M plant that morning, with no cell phone service and no idea what was happening.  We found that out hours later.

When the FAA canceled all flights in the U.S. and rental car companies began selling out, M's boss had the foresight to rent him a car immediately.  Without contacting M, without a moment's hesitation, he got my husband a car to ensure he could get home. I will never, ever forget this act of prescient kindness.  The one-way, last-minute rental cost M's company a fortune, and Jeff never batted an eye.  The thing I wanted more than all else was to see and hold M.  Had it not been for Jeff's phone call, it would have been days or even a week before M could have gotten home.

The weeks after were a blur of activity.  We all went in early and stayed late.  Phone banks and telethons and organizing volunteers and supplies and even our ERV, or emergency response vehicle.  An ERV is basically a box truck with windows in the sides, from which food and supplies are distributed.  We sent three or four volunteers off to New York with one of our two ERVs.  It came back six months later looking as though it had been through a war.  A mirror was missing, and the sides were dented and gashed.

I would return home each night exhausted mentally and physically.  M wanted to watch the news, catch up on what was happening at Ground Zero.  I was living it every day, for 10 to 12 hours at a time, and couldn't stomach any more once I got home.

At some point in those harried, hectic months, an asshole politician (okay, I realize that's redundant) in Washington, DC, decided that the Red Cross couldn't possibly be doing anything worthwhile.  We began to be hit with negative media attention and letters from this man that were dozens of pages long and filled with accusations.  Allegations ranged from inappropriate spending on a fancy new phone system and new vehicles to high salaries for our executives.

We were crushed.  Everyone I knew at Red Cross had been working tirelessly to help our fellow Americans.  The money we used for the "fancy" phone system was actually a much-needed upgrade to our disaster hotline, which had been woefully overwhelmed in the days after 9/11 (the old system actually crashed at one point, which didn't benefit anyone).  The new vehicles were emergency response vehicles, which helped us reach disaster-stricken areas faster and more safely. And I'll be the first person to stand up and say that our executives earned every single penny of their salaries.  They were making a fraction of what they could have commanded in the private sector, and they, like the rest of us, essentially gave up their personal lives to help for months on end.  The stress our leaders carried was evident on their faces and in the graying of their hair.

The Red Cross fund raising system was logical, to me.  When a disaster happens, you can't wait for donations to come in and accounting to figure it out all out before you respond.  It just doesn't work like that.  When a disaster happens, the Red Cross has to be ready to go.  Command posts are established immediately, supplies and volunteers are dispatched, shelters are set up.  Red Cross volunteers and staff are typically on the scene of a disaster second only to firefighters, police and other professional emergency responders.  All this takes money in the bank.  So, we'd use the money raised from the last disaster to help victims of this disaster.  Then the money raised from this disaster would help the victims of the next.  This is not rocket science, people.  It's the best way to enable an organization be ready 24/7/365 to help.  Actually, it's the only way.

Well, the asshole politician didn't bother to stop and think about that.  He didn't bother to think for one second that perhaps the organization that had been helping Americans since 1881 had things figured out.  He didn't bother to think that donations raised from a tornado or a hurricane or a flood hundreds of miles away and months before enabled our people to be at Ground Zero within hours, helping our firefighters and police officers and victims.  He just didn't think.  And his actions forever impaired fundraising for US disaster relief organizations.

This year, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I encourage you to make a financial contribution to the American Red Cross or the disaster relief organization of your choice.  Go donate blood, or time.  I haven't worked there in years, but I will always hold a special place in my heart, and will always be proud of my service and the unwavering dedication of my colleagues.  Do me a favor, when you donate money, don't specify how you want it used.  Trust me, the Red Cross is a good, honest steward of your money.  They know best where it's needed and how to help as many people as possible.  I hope we never experience the likes of 9/11 ever again, but the next natural disaster is waiting in the wings, and the next, and the next, and the next.  Help the Red Cross be ready to respond, ready to help.

They just might help you, or someone you love.

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