Several years ago, during my first day on the job as regional disaster officer for the American Red Cross in Central and South Texas, where I worked before joining the organization here in New York, a call came in that a plane had crashed into the IRS building in Austin, with hundreds of people inside.
Having lived through the Sept. 11 attacks in Manhattan, I instinctively flashed back to the horror of that day. Then I took a deep breath and quickly began mobilizing a team to respond. Though my office had only two staff members, I knew we’d be able to count on the many trained Red Cross volunteers in the area to jump into action to provide both physical comfort and emotional support to those affected.
The same is true for all emergencies that the Red Cross responds to, including the roughly 350 home fires, floods and other disaster calls for help that the organization answers each year on Long Island, where I now work. No matter the time of day or the severity of the crisis, our volunteers are always ready and willing to help wherever they’re needed — whether it’s down the street or, sometimes, across the country. Volunteers make up 90 percent of our workforce, and without them the Red Cross simply wouldn’t exist.
This week, April 17-23, is National Volunteer Week, and it gives us an opportunity to thank these selfless people, who do everything from teaching emergency preparedness to supporting our military communities to installing free smoke alarms — in addition to responding to disasters. Often they put their own lives on hold to help others in need, and their work has been especially important during the coronavirus crisis of the past two years.
They drop everything, often in the middle of the night, to provide comfort and compassion to our neighbors across Long Island after emergencies that occur nearly every day. Volunteers from Nassau and Suffolk counties also traveled far from home to help those impacted by tornadoes in Kentucky, wildfires out West and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast.
Last June, I joined volunteers from all over the country, including some from Long Island, who deployed to Surfside, Fla., after the building collapse there. The main focus of our team members was the mental well-being of survivors and the families of those who didn’t make it out.
Providing emotional support is an important part of the work that trained Red Cross volunteers do both at the scenes of disasters and afterward. There were so many sad stories in Surfside, and so much trauma. I was in awe of how resilient our mental-health volunteers were, and their ability to help people begin to cope with the shock and grief they were feeling.
I’m always grateful for the vast skills of our volunteers, and National Volunteer Week is when we ask our neighbors to recognize the impact of selfless volunteers from the Long Island Red Cross as well as those who support their communities through all the other great local service organizations. We also use the week as a chance to reach out to people from all backgrounds and professions and invite them to join our team. The Red Cross has so many different activities and lines of services for people to get involved with based on their experience, their interests, or both.
Becoming a volunteer takes time, commitment and a lot of flexibility, but I think most would agree that it’s worth it. As Red Cross volunteer Margaret Sukhram, a nurse practitioner from Suffolk County, puts it, “I feel richer every day for volunteering. I feel that I’m making a difference in people’s lives.” As a bonus, she has developed great friendships with some of the other volunteers she’s met.
If you’re thinking about volunteering, my advice is to choose an organization whose mission resonates with you. And try to go in with open eyes, understanding that it won’t always be hugs and handshakes. Sometimes it will require lots of patience and hard work. But finding an organization that’s the right fit will make it worthwhile.
This is my 16th year with the Red Cross, and I’m so proud to work alongside the many talented volunteers who make such a huge impact both here on Long Island and across the country. Thanks to all who turn compassion into action every day by delivering help and hope where it’s needed most.
To learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer, go to www.redcross.org/VolunteerToday
Jose Dominguez is chief executive officer of American Red Cross on Long Island.