By Kim Mailes
Richard Wimberly may be officially retired after a 30-year career as a corrections officer, but you wouldn’t know it. The resident of Pine Bluff, Ark., spends a good portion of most days carefully restoring his 1971 Pontiac GTO. Other days are spent in the field pursuing his passion for nature photography. Recently, he has focused his lens on migrating American Bald Eagles. When Richard noticed bread shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, he experimented at home until he could bake the perfect loaf. Richard is a “can-do” kind of guy.
So, one evening after hearing an American Red Cross request for volunteers to respond to disasters and to help promote installation of smoke alarms, he thought, “I can do that.”
The Red Cross wasn’t new to Richard. Several years ago, his wife began volunteering for the Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT). Her responses took place in the evening, and Richard would drop her off and pick her up. He was intrigued by his wife’s work. She provided emotional support, financial assistance, and information to help families begin the process of recovery from disasters. Once Richard signed on as a volunteer, he and his wife served together until she passed away a few years ago. “I’m proud of the work she did,” Richard said, remembering numerous awards she received for devoted service. These days he continues the mission, noting with subtle pride that he has also won every award she ever earned, and a few more besides.
As an African American volunteer, Richard finds the American Red Cross to be a welcoming community open to diversity. He has always felt accepted and valued, and encourages other people of color to volunteer for the Red Cross. He advocates programs to not only recruit diversity, but to motivate and maintain a diverse volunteer force.
When asked how many hours he volunteers for the Red Cross, Richard says it’s hard to say. Each month he takes at least one DAT dispatch shift, which involves being on-call 24 hours a day for a two-week period. While on duty, he takes calls from regional or national Red Cross offices about home fires across a large region of Southeast Arkansas. Richard then dispatches trained Red Cross volunteers who contact those affected by disasters to provide financial and emotional support and to make sure they have shelter while putting their lives back together.
Noting that even though the pandemic has changed the way the Red Cross goes carries out its work, Richard says the mission remains the same. He misses the personal connections of in-person meetings and deployments, but predicts some new efficiencies will become standard practice. As a real time-saver, Richard points to online and app-based transfers of cash to clients suffering from a house fire or other disaster. He says these have reduced dependence on physical debit cards.
In addition to home-based DAT work, Richard has deployed to a number of disasters in states surrounding his home in Arkansas. He has responded to tornadoes in Oklahoma, floods in Texas and hurricanes in Louisiana. Visiting his daughter in Louisiana when one disaster occurred, he immediately went to the Red Cross sheltering site and offered to serve.
He finds the training offered by the Red Cross, tremendously valuable. But there’s nothing like on-the-job experience, Richard contends. “Red Cross training provides a foundation, but the experience of actually doing the work makes you a pro,” he says, advising any new volunteer to complete all the necessary training, “and then just get out there and do it.”
When asked what specific Red Cross titles he holds, Richard says that he has designations for some of the positions. “But mostly I’m ready to do whatever needs doing. I just want to fulfill the mission of the Red Cross, and I’m available to help any way I can.
“Each year I make a New Year’s resolution to be better than the year before. That includes my work with the Red Cross, I want to do more and be more useful every year. I plan on doing this until I can’t do it anymore. The Red Cross has just become part of my life, and I can’t imagine giving it up.”