Although the International Red Cross was founded by a Swiss businessman, the American branch of the famous relief organization was founded by a woman, Clara Barton. Barton’s experience as a volunteer aiding soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War gave her the skills she needed to establish the American Red Cross as an independent, civilian agency offering aid wherever it’s needed.
As Sidney Helsten, Senior Volunteer Recruitment Specialist for the American Red Cross NW Region puts it, the agency continues to see “that basic needs are met, whether that is medical care, food, care, [or] comfort,” during a natural or human-caused disaster.
Today, Sidney recruits volunteer help for Washington state and the Panhandle of Idaho, which totals about 1,950 volunteers, with about 650 within King County. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of these numbers is that they make up 90% of the Red Cross’s workforce. “Our volunteers are really how we deliver our services. As staff members, we’re really here to support and empower our volunteers, to make sure that they can do the work that they are doing for the community. I’m very proud of that.”
“Our volunteers are really how we deliver our services. As staff members, we’re really here to support and empower our volunteers, to make sure that they can do the work that they are doing for the community. I’m very proud of that.” ~Sidney Helsten, Senior Volunteer Recruitment Specialist, American Red Cross NW Region
She’s been in her position now for just under three years and finds it very satisfying to work with active community members. “Our volunteers are the kind of people who are stepping up when bad things are happening in the world: natural disasters, house fires. It’s really empowering just to be around [them], and I’m thankful to be in my role.”
As Sidney explains, “[The Red Cross NW Region is] always looking for volunteers who have a passion for giving back, who want to volunteer in this capacity, who are team players and really want to help others … a lot of times on their worst day. Many times, unfortunately.”
Among the relief agency’s needs right now is volunteers for the Disaster Action Team, which responds to local home fires and, Sidney explains, “provides immediate services to families and individuals impacted by home fires or floods to meet their basic needs. If they need food, they need clothing, or if they need a place to stay, we can provide them financial services for that.”
At present, the Disaster Action Team is looking for a person to be a hotline dispatcher. “When there is a home fire that occurs in King County, they are the ones that are called, either by the fire department or another organization, and they are the ones who dispatch our volunteers to go out to the site.”
An on-call position, a volunteer dispatcher commits to be reachable by phone for a set 12-hour period, say on a Monday. “If there is a disaster that occurs, they need to always have that phone on them, and if it rings, they can drop what they’re doing, pick up the phone, and dispatch our volunteers to it. … Hopefully nothing happens, but if it does, you’re ready to help. There could be many shifts that the phone doesn’t ring. That’s what we hope for, but you have to be ready.”
Another need exists for retired health professionals looking to use the skills they have from careers as medical professionals. In the area of disaster health services, qualified volunteers help meet basic health needs that arise during disasters. “Whether that’s home fires or wildfires,” Sidney says, “Red Cross volunteers help meet anything health related: being able to administer basic care, basic first aid, and if they need any kind of referral to further care.”
Another pressing need is for people with leadership or managerial experience to coordinate volunteers on the Disaster Action Team and help schedule Red Cross volunteers. “There is always a need for someone to meet one-on-one to answer volunteers’ questions [who] is a little more schedule based,” Sidney explains.
Another steady volunteer opening is for members of the Armed Forces. As Sidney says, “We work closely with the military community to provide services with what we call the ‘military plus community,’ including active military members, veterans, spouses, dependents.” Volunteers can provide event support at local yellow ribbon and stand down events – as well as “Heroes’ Cafes” – which bring together veterans and communities.
Winding up our list of Red Cross-related volunteer opportunities is joining the team at a temporary disaster shelter. “That is when we open a shelter in response to a large-scale disaster,” Sidney says, “whether that is a large apartment fire, where many people have had to evacuate, or in response to the wildfires that happen in Eastern Oregon or Washington.”
As the energetic and well-spoken Sidney tells us, taking part with volunteers responding to such emergencies: “It’s really empowering to be around all of that, and I’m thankful to be in my role.”
For more information, please contact RSVP Coordinator Megan Wildhood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.694.6786.
About RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program)
- RSVP is an AmeriCorps Seniors program that engages people age 55 and older in a diverse range of volunteer activities. Sponsored locally by Solid Ground, we match RSVP volunteers with opportunities to meet community needs at approximately 40 partner organizations. To get involved, contact us at email@example.com today!
- EIA (Experience in Action) is RSVP’s member newsletter, printed three times a year.
- This piece by EIA contributor David Thornbrugh appears in SUMMER 2022 EIA: Welcome to RSVP!
- Above images courtesy of the American Red Cross.