By Lauren Bongard Schwarz, Union College Graduate
The American Red Cross is often a first responder to emergencies, with volunteers handing out food and necessities, finding lodging, and taking care of immediate needs of survivors. When disasters like house fires or tornadoes occur in the Lincoln and surrounding area, it may very well be Union College students who provide the care.
Since 2014, the Union College Red Cross Club has responded to more than 56 fire calls and five tornadoes, installed more than 250 smoke detectors, taught community members about fire safety and helped them make disaster plans, provided first aid at public events, opened Red Cross shelters, performed damage assessments for the Red Cross and FEMA, and more.
The club is open to all students, but most members are international rescue and relief majors or in medical-related programs. “The goal of IRR is building personal competencies, reliability, dependability, service orientation, and teamwork,” said Rick Young, chair of the Division of Emergency Management and Exercise Science and director of the international rescue and relief program. “Being part of the Red Cross helps students build those skills with other organizations.”
The club is on call one week each month during the school year. During that week, students sign up for four-hour blocks of time that work with their schedules. If a disaster call comes in, a staff member contacts the students who are on call and they head to the emergency location to render services and provide immediate relief to those involved. This includes offering clothing, food, lodging, and everything else they’ll need for the next 48 hours, after which a Red Cross follow-up team takes over. Club members also provide canteen services to firefighters and first responders, offering hot chocolate, snacks, and other support to help them keep going on calls that can last from two to 10 hours.
Young explains that firsthand experience helps students build their professionalism and muscle memory, which helps them better retain the information they’re learning in classes.
“It opens up the textbook,” Young says. “We can talk about disaster response and helping people, but when students get into someone’s home with the roof blown off, it opens their eyes. They see the struggles that people go through, and that builds empathy, compassion, and a passion for responding and giving service and meeting needs.”
That’s true for Angelina Allen, a junior International Rescue and Relief major who is focused on emergency medicine and considering an emphasis in disaster response or relief work.
“I am a volunteer-driven person,” she said. “I love doing volunteer work and have always wanted to work with the Red Cross. But I’m also a student, so it’s difficult to commit to a lot of time. With the Red Cross Club, volunteering works with my schedule. I leaped at the opportunity to join.”
After leaving emergency calls, Young and his staff debrief with the students on the way back to Union’s campus. “We talk about what worked, what didn’t and how it could go better next time,” he said. “We talk through the impact on the people who are involved and the community, and it’s a great way for students to get real-life, on-the-ground education.”
Along with providing immediate relief to survivors and first-hand experience to students, some graduates have also found career paths through volunteer experiences.
“Several students have acquired internship positions with the Red Cross, and one went to work for the Red Cross,” said Young. “This opens up opportunities and lets them see the real world and gain experience.”
Allen agrees that her experiences are preparing her for life after graduation. “Being part of this club fits in very well with my career path and what I eventually want to be doing,” she said. “It gives me experience while I’m still in school so I can get an idea of where I want to go and specifically want I want to do with my degree.”
More students are taking advantage of that opportunity every year. The club is steadily growing, up from 14 members the first year to 41 this year. They’ve also gained recognition from the Red Cross and in the community. In 2014 the club was presented with the Disaster Response Hero Award by the local Red Cross chapter.
But for students, being able to pair classroom learning with hands-on experience is the most rewarding aspect of club membership.
“I really appreciate that the Red Cross Club is made available to us,” said Allen. “I want those experiences; the rest of my class wants them, too. And at Union, it’s easily accessible and student-friendly. We can make service a priority and still go to all of our classes. We come out of college with all of this experience; and while we’re still in school, Lincoln is receiving our service.”