Disasters have the potential to bring out the best in people, especially those with a strong desire to help those adversely affected. Superstorm Sandy was no exception.
Like thousands of other New Yorkers, James Freeman jumped at the chance to help the American Red Cross.
But unlike most who returned to their normal lives after helping out for a spell, Freeman decided to become a permanent volunteer with the Greater New York Red Cross, working out of regional headquarters in Manhattan.
“There’s something addictive about helping people, addictive in a good way. When you do it, you want to do a little more,” said Freeman, recently retired as an IT director with a Credit Suisse after 28 years.
Freeman, 59, was still working at Credit Swiss when Sandy hit, and was part of the company’s Ready When the Time Comes (RWTC) program. RWTC trains corporate employees and members of community groups as Red Cross disaster volunteers. These volunteers provide a community-based contingent ready to help the Red Cross when a local disaster strikes.
While the Credit Suisse team wasn’t doing call outs when Sandy hit, Freeman called the Red Cross chapter and volunteered his services. He was assigned to the Red Cross call center where he fielded countless calls from people who were confused, concerned, sometimes angry, and in need of help.
“We were able to help those in need find shelter, help to inform concerned people from outside the area about the realities of the situation and to direct calls so that communications between critical resources could stay focused,” he said.
“Seeing the impact we were having on people’s lives, and the real friendships all around me, inspired me to make my larger commitment after retirement,” he added.
Reaction by volunteers to Sandy was the same as in most major disasters. Folks show up in droves, stay awhile and then most leave when the disaster response quiets down.
Within the first three days of the storm, the Greater New York Red Cross received approximately 3,000 inquiries from people wanting to help in some way. Eventually some 900 people were trained and helped with sheltering, feeding, and distribution of clean up supplies and personal hygiene kits. All are being encouraged to follow Freeman’s lead in joining the ranks of permanent Red Cross volunteers.
“I felt during Sandy this was the place to be, that this is where I could do something to help people. There is a great pleasure to that,” he said. “The ‘pay’ is helping people face to face.”
The Brooklyn resident is currently completing training as a disaster responder who helps residential fire victims and those forced to vacate their homes or apartments due to building violations. He’s also training to work in the Greater New York Emergency Communications Center, to help monitor emergencies and dispatch Red Cross disaster responders to those emergencies.
Georgine Gorra is a mental health volunteer who feels, from both a personal and professional standpoint, that it is human nature to want to help in times of disaster.
Right after 9/11 Gorra joined the Red Cross as a spontaneous volunteer—someone who gets in touch with the Red Cross after a disaster, comes in and gets trained as a volunteer. She did so after the Red Cross put out the call for mental health volunteers; she has been with the organization ever since.
“It was my city, my family. Everybody felt compelled to help,” said Gorra, 64, an adjunct professor at the Adelphia University School of Social Work who recently closed her private practice.
“We all want to feel helpful and the Red Cross is an extraordinary humanitarian organization,” she said. “The more people you can have, it’s a good thing. It enhances the Red Cross but also enhances the community.”
When Sandy struck, Gorra visited city shelters to assess mental health needs and then went to the hard-hit Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn where she went out with Red Cross volunteers delivering meals, often walking several flights of stairs in the dark, cold and wet.
“I see it as an ethical responsibility for a social worker, to get out of the office and help people, to see the connection between the people and the environment,” she said. “When you can give people the basics, that allows them to draw on their resiliencies and their own ability to bounce back, and that is what the Red Cross does.”
At 32, Corbin Kappler works in marketing and lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When Sandy struck, he knew he had to something beyond watching the news coverage.
He volunteered at the Red Cross and started with the Safe and Well Family Linking team which helps connect people unable to find relatives who went through the storm. One of the first things he did was create a database of cases and a filing system for tracking.
“I never thought my Excel skills would come in handy in a storm relief operation, but they proved to be quite helpful,” he said. “I must admit there were some days that I felt like I was on an FBI television show, doing my research and trying to locate individuals.”
Then he joined a canvassing team, going door-to-door in the Rockaways in Queens to check on the welfare of those unable to get out of their high-rise buildings because there was no power—and therefore no elevator service.
“I’ll never forget walking up and down those dark hallways with my team, knocking on doors and finding neighbors in need of a little help. This was what it was all about for me,” Kappler said.
After the storm, Kappler also made the decision to become a Greater New York disaster responder.
“I had been exposed to the need. I met the people that the Red Cross helps, saw the aid that was available and the need for volunteers to contribute,” he said.
Freeman said he felt there is something unique about helping people in need, something that sometimes is hard to put into words.
“We give out Red Cross blankets and they take them and wrap themselves in them even if they really don’t need them,” he said. “It’s like a talisman. It’s like you give them a little magic and they feel better.”
The Red Cross needs volunteers not only for disasters, but they are essential for its day-to-day operations as well.
Red Cross volunteers are ordinary individuals who are empowered to do extraordinary things. Those interested in becoming a Red Cross volunteer can go to redcross.org to get more information about how to apply.