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The Spirit of Volunteerism: Portrait of a DAT

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"we all deserve the same thing: food, shelter, respect…the basic necessities"

It's National Volunteer Week (April 12-18, 2015), and we’re celebrating the incredible Red Cross volunteers who serve our region in countless ways. Among the many everyday heroes who make our life-changing work possible through their dedication and service, our Disaster Action Team members - or "DATs" - stand out for the role they play in bringing comfort and hope to disaster victims when they need it most. Here, we bring you the story of one such DAT, who sat down to share a bit of her Red Cross journey with us. As you read about her unique experience, we hope you’ll remember that she is one of thousands of Red Cross volunteers making a difference in our region every day. We also hope that as you read, you'll be inspired to join us! Call your local Red Cross chapter or visit us online, and begin your Red Cross story today! 


Devastation of Hurricane Irene Motivates Catskill Teacher to Become Red Cross Leader
by Lauren Schwartz

Dara Young’s philosophy about volunteer work is simple. “I think if you have a desire to help someone, and if you’re caring and empathetic, that’s all you need.” The Special Ed teacher may be petite in stature, but her personality is anything but. She smiles warmly at me across her kitchen table while enthusiastically describing her experiences as a DAT — Red Cross-speak for a member of the hugely important Disaster Action Team. These are the everyday heroes that respond to disasters large and small, natural and manmade, in rain, snow, and blistering heat, all across the nation, every day of the week. They are the folks you see on the local news setting up shelters when a flood forces people out of their homes, or showing up on the scene of a tragic house fire to offer emotional and financial support to a family that has just lost everything. They are tough. They are dedicated. But perhaps above all, they are committed to the spirit of the Red Cross and its mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies.

Dara joined the organization in 2011, in the wake of Hurricane Irene’s destruction. The flooding caused by the storm inflicted major damage to the village of Catskill, not far from her home, and while her house remained relatively unscathed, people just a few miles away were not as lucky. Dara recounted the stories for me, each one more poignant than the last. According to Dara, there were “no services at all” — no power or water — and many roads were completely flooded. So Dara laced up her boots and, armed only with neighborly good will and an eagerness to roll up her sleeves and get to work, rode her bike the five or so miles into town to see what she could do to help. When she arrived, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Even though the majority of the flooding had abated, she said, “People were running around in pandemonium. And I kept thinking to myself, ‘how come we’re not getting any help?’”

As an animal lover, Dara was especially concerned about the safety of our furry feline and canine companions. She knew that many people’s pets would perish if they went missing or were accidently left behind in the rush to evacuate. So she biked over to the home of a friend who owned an animal sanctuary for cats that are sick, abused, neglected, or wild. Luckily, several kind volunteers had helped Dara’s friend, and all 50 or so of her cats had been safely evacuated. But the friend told Dara about another woman down the road who also had a cat sanctuary and really needed help. By the time Dara arrived, the woman was visibly shaken; according to Dara, she was in a state of shock, overwhelmed by the situation and the sudden loss of the animals she had taken in to protect. 

Dara was determined to help this stranger, simply because she needed it. So she continued, undaunted. “I said, ‘Hello, my name is Dara, I’m a friend of [the other sanctuary owner], and I heard you could use some help.'” She noticed the woman’s clothes were wet and muddy, and gently urged her to change into warm, dry clothes. Dara then proceeded to spend the rest of the day cleaning the woman’s house and backyard, both ravaged by the flood waters. She came back the next day with her sister to finish the job, and since she suspected the woman’s clothes were mostly unsalvageable, she had picked up some clean clothes at a nearby collection site. At this point, many people might have thought they’d done enough, but Dara didn’t stop there. After cleaning the home of the cat sanctuary owner, Dara went down the road with her sister and cleaned another stranger’s house. And then another.

“I think we’re all the same in the end, whether we’re rich or poor, educated or not, it really doesn’t matter.” This attitude is what motivated Dara to help her community so generously in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. It’s what motivated her to sign up for DAT training with the Red Cross that very week. And it’s what keeps her motivated to lace up those boots each time she gets a call saying that somewhere close-by, someone is in need of her help. “That’s what I like about the Red Cross, the impartiality. It doesn’t matter [...], we’re all the same, we all deserve the same thing: food, shelter, respect…the basic necessities. And that’s what I remember when I go to these scenes: ‘How can I help this other person? If I was in their situation, how would I like to be treated?’ It’s just the human condition.”

In the chaos of Hurricane Irene, Dara did an amazing job helping her neighbors. But in the aftermath of the disaster, when government resources and aid organizations were overwhelmed, she felt that the local response in her town could have been more organized. “We needed a lot of help here,” she tells me. So Dara took action. “I got involved with the Red Cross that week. Immediately!” I can’t help but be impressed with her fortitude. “At first, it was ‘how can I help?’ And then as time went on, I said ‘how can I be a leader in this?’” 

“There’s always a need for volunteers, whether you’re still working or you’re not, it’s just a human condition that needs to be satisfied,” Dara says when I ask her how she’d encourage others to sign up for DAT training. Dara has now been a DAT responder for over three years, and has been on approximately twenty calls, mostly house fires. She has taken a number of training classes, and is currently what’s known as a “full responder,” meaning she is qualified to take the lead at a disaster scene. In this capacity, she is able, for example, to arrange temporary hotel accomodations and supply a preloaded debit card for a few days' worth of essentials to a family that’s lost their home in a fire. These are the tangible ways in which Dara, and other DATs like her, make a difference in the lives of real people in need, and then, of course, there are the intangible things - comfort, safety, and hope.

I ask Dara about the most rewarding part of her work as a DAT, and her answer is something that I’ve heard from so many volunteers since I myself started volunteering as a Communications Associate with the Red Cross in August of 2014. “The biggest reward is just knowing that I’ve helped someone else.” The simple act of helping someone in need is its own reward, and this is why the Red Cross is able to do what it does. Because so many people want to help, either by volunteering their time or making a donation, the organization is able to count on a massive network of committed volunteers to fulfill its mission. 

Indeed, the work itself is incredibly rewarding. But I’m writing a story! I want details. So I press Dara further, wondering if there are any moments that stand out in her mind as special, moments where she felt she was really making a difference. She reflects for a minute, and then her eyes light up. “The kids just go ballistic when you give them a comfort bag, which is some toiletries and also some toys, because it’s a surprise; it distracts them from this difficult event that’s just occurred.” While being a DAT certainly comes with its share of challenges, it’s easy to see why Dara loves it.