Contributed by Sarah McDonald, a Red Cross volunteer in San Francisco.
Most people know that the American Red Cross organizes food and shelter for disaster victims, but they also need a variety of volunteers with various skills. One volunteer with a unique skill is Virginia Hart, a Bay Area resident, who has been a photographer for the American Red Cross Advanced Public Affairs Team (APAT) since 2005.
Virginia says her volunteering story started as many others did – she saw the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on CNN and decided to "get off the couch and do something."
Since retiring from a career in law, Virginia went to art school to hone her creative skills. While deployed in Mississippi during the relief effort following Hurricane Katrina, she asked if the American Red Cross could use a photographer.
Virginia says her role as a photographer is to document the work of the American Red Cross, whether it is helping people rebuild their lives after a local apartment fire or while deployed after a natural disaster. As a volunteer, she can do more than observe.
"A lot of times when I get home and I've taken pictures of children in a shelter, I'll email those photos to the family," Virginia explains. "They have often lost all their family photos and they're very grateful."
Her last deployment was for Superstorm Sandy. Virginia was deployed twice by APAT, first traveling to Atlantic City ahead of the storm, then later to New York City and New Jersey as the public affairs manager.
"New York was the most affected,” Virginia said. “In both New York and New Jersey, there was a lot of flooding. We spoke to one woman who had six steps to her house and it was now level with the sand.”
APAT, established in 1994, is a specialty track within the Disaster Public Affairs branch of the American Red Cross. Members tell the story of Red Cross disaster relief by working with local media, staffing emergency operations centers to keep the public informed, and by taking photos and videos to share on Redcross.org or on social media. There are approximately 130 APAT members working for the Red Cross nationwide.
While a typical day on a deployment to a disaster might involve visiting shelters or taking pictures of workers handing out hot meals to those without power, there is much more to the American Red Cross than helping people recover from a disaster.
Virginia says her favorite moment from her time in New York City was the party organized by the Red Cross and Hard Rock Café in January for families who were living in shelters after the storm.
"Everyone was playing, it was really wonderful,” Virginia said. “One gentleman said he hadn't seen his daughter laugh for two months."
The party transformed the Hard Rock Café into a huge playground, complete with toys, foam blocks, and face painting for the 93 children, plus a 'shopping area' full of donated gifts for the adults.
The event was all part of the American Red Cross emotional support services, which many people are not aware of, Virginia adds.
Life as an APAT member for the American Red Cross is not always easy. Volunteers face many of the same challenges going into disaster zones as the victims, often staying in the same emergency shelters. Despite the hardship, Virginia says her work is "very rewarding" and she intends to keep volunteering for the Red Cross for many years to come.