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A Lifetime of Service and Care
Michael Deleon is a New Yorker, through and through. Originally from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War in 1968, straight out of high school. After getting injured on duty and coming back home, he became a surgical technician, and then eventually transitioned to working with adolescents in the hospital’s psychiatric unit.
Speaking about what military service has brought to his life, Deleon said, "It saved me, because it opened a lot of doors, it taught me a lot. I was nineteen years old.” Beyond keeping him out of trouble, Deleon says it prepared him for life as an adult.
“When I came home, it helped me with raising a family. I got five kids and twelve grandkids, and I finally got a great grandkid. So I have four generations, and I’m still alive and well. And I take one day at a time.”
He joined the Red Cross during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and has since volunteered in multiple roles: as a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) driver, doing emergency preparedness presentations and supporting the organization’s fire safety program.
Deleon’s service with the Red Cross felt familiar after his time in Vietnam. “It’s all the same, it’s all uniform, everybody works together. You see, disaster comes in all forms.”
With the Red Cross, it often came in the form of responding to house fires and providing services to affected families. “You just lost your house. You and your husband and your four kids are standing outside and you don’t have anything. Trust me...whatever I’m able to give you, I’m going to do my best to get for you.”
Sometimes witnessing hardship is difficult for Deleon, but between his military and life experience, he’s learned how important it is to do what he can for others.
Now retired in the Bronx, Deleon spends his days with that family. “My grandbaby’s eight now. Me and her other grandfather have been her only babysitters since her mother went back to work. So that’s what I’ve been up to. Me and Pop, we’ve been in her life since she was born...she’s in school now, she’s in third grade. She’s taller than me. It’s crazy.”
“I’ve seen so much in my life, from death to happiness, all and in between. I’ve seen old people standing outside who have lost everything. And then there are others, in nursing homes, just happy to have you visit, just give them a little presentation. So you get a little joy, a reward out of doing something for others.”
9-to-5er, Volunteer Fireman AND a Red Cross Volunteer
“Outside of the Red Cross, I'm also a volunteer firefighter in Westchester, and that's how I learned about the Red Cross and what they do. It's pretty cool to me that the Red Cross was there for people in their darkest hour, and that's what drew me into it. That sense of giving back to my community when they need me the most.
I didn't know what to expect when I signed up. I had a general idea of what the Red Cross did. It was overwhelming to see the kind of support that the Red Cross gave. It was definitely an eye-opener. I didn't know that we did so much to help.
I have a regular nine-to-five job during the day, so I try to take on the overnight shifts. I have two little ones, and the youngest is five months old, so getting up when I have a phone call at three in the morning with the baby, it’s one of the hard parts, but it's also rewarding because knowing that at the other end, it's probably someone, same issue or same situation as me who has little kids.
I feel more connected to the community as far as seeing what people go through on a day-to-day, understanding the challenges that people go through. It definitely humbled me a lot. You're with these people during one of the worst days in their lives, trying to see what the Red Cross can do to help them.
My day-to-day was great, but I wanted to do more, kind of give back. Firefighting was something that I always admired because those are the guys that you call when anything goes wrong. They'll do everything from fires, accidents, medical calls, so those are the guys that you call. I admired that about the fire department, so that's what drew me into that. We’re knocking the fire out, getting it under control, but then after that, the building’s fire is done, but the family is still there. Then what happens to their family and that's kind of where the Red Cross came in, so to see that whole thing from beginning to end, that's what drew me into the Red Cross.” –Prince Thomas (White Plains, NY)
Navy Veteran Values the Training He Received as a Red Cross Volunteer
Julius Harrison, who served 25 years in the Navy, is among the many veterans who bring their commitment to service and skills acquired in the military to the Red Cross.
In 2000, Julius Harrison was in the middle of his 25-year career in the Navy, when he decided to become a Red Cross volunteer.
Enlisted leaders in the Navy encouraged their sailors to do volunteer work, and Julius, who had ambitions of getting ahead in rank, decided to follow through.
As a member of the Disaster Action team, Julius took classes and responded to emergencies, all of which, he says, made him a better sailor and a better person.
“Once you go to enough responses, if one of your sailor’s is going through something, you know what to say,” Julius explains. “That type of experience goes in your tool belt.”
Julius believes that the training he got as a Red Cross volunteer ultimately helped him advance to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Now retired from the Navy, Julius continues to volunteer and has racked up over 2,000 hours of volunteer service.
During his time as a Red Cross volunteer, he has done a range of jobs, from disaster relief to “Pillowcase Presentations,” teaching students about emergency preparedness. Most recently, in the wake of Hurricane Ida, Julius served as a feeding coordinator in the Bronx.
“Being a DAT [Disaster Acton Team] responder is an eye-opener,” Julius says. “You value things better. You are front line.”
Read about other veterans who serve as Red Cross volunteers.
Disaster Action Team Volunteer Who Brings Empathy and Perspective to Her Work
Marian Ford has been a Red Cross volunteer since 2014. Recently retired and with more time to give back on weekdays, she dedicated time to our Disaster Action Team, helping provide relief after local disasters. She’s also often a friendly face you’ll see at Red Cross blood drives, volunteering as a donor ambassador. Marian’s decades-long career in Social Security has prepared her to work with people in all sorts of circumstances.
“Before I retired, I worked in an office and people came to me. Now as a volunteer I go to them--where they live, in the community. I go into people’s homes, into their neighborhoods. You really learn a lot about people’s circumstances…I bring empathy. I bring a unique way of looking at things.”
Red Cross Volunteer Keeps Families Connected Across Miles, Years
Greater New York Red Cross volunteer Ogochukwu Ononiwu is of Nigerian descent and was born in Ravenna, Italy. She came to the U.S. in 2013. And while she enjoys all that there is to do in Brooklyn she adds with a laugh and an ever-present smile “I miss the amazing food in Italy.”
In September 2019 Ononiwu started as an intern with the Restoring Family Link program (RFL), at the American Red Cross. RFL offers a number of services including helping connect family members separated by disaster, conflict or migration and helping those accepted as an immigrant to another country gather the required documentation to travel to the country welcoming them.
Ononiwu started by doing outreach and entering information into the RFL database.
“We would take all the information and try to help you find the person you are looking for. It’s about being patient and taking your time in processing the information. It can take weeks or months. We keep cases open because new information or documentation can come in and we can do more research.”
For an international search, The American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, DC will send information to the Red Cross or Red Crescent national society in the specific country involved to begin the search.
One case Ononiwu worked on reunited a man in France with his brothers. In another, grandchildren in Europe were trying to connect with their grandmother in New York. Unfortunately the grandmother had passed away, but the family was grateful because the Red Cross had provided them with closure and helped make funeral arrangements.
“When you see your case coming to a close it’s a good thing even if it is a little sad. You were able to help someone,” says Ononiwu.
Searches do not always have to be disaster related. Sometimes people fall out of touch with family simply because they do not have access to a phone or the Internet.
The RFL program can also help people find out the fate of relatives who went missing during the Holocaust or World War II.
Ononiwu, a junior at Lehman College majoring in political science and anthropology, continued to volunteer as a case worker after her internship was over. She is interested in a career in international relations or humanitarian work.
“Being able to do these things makes you feel very connected as a world. By working together you can make sure that everyone is taken care of. We are all a piece of each other and we can all work together to ensure we can retain our family because family is extremely important and vital to how we live,” says Ononiwu.
Reflections on Being a Red Cross Volunteer During 9/11
“My mother was a volunteer; she worked for FEMA on a temporary basis. When there was a major disaster anywhere in the United States, she was called upon to respond. She came back after some major responses and told me incredible stories about her experience and the people that she worked with and how rewarding it was for her.
After she passed away, I went to my local American Red Cross chapter in Queens, and I interviewed as a Disaster Services volunteer. And one night on duty turned into two nights on duty, to three nights on duty a week. I was eagerly learning more about the field, responding to disasters, helping people in their time of need, the amazing volunteers that I worked with, it was all new and exciting to me. I became a team captain. I was hooked immediately.
On the day of 9/11, we received reports about the first plane crashing into the first tower and I ended up driving down to the World Trade Center site with the director of the Disaster Services at that time, Virginia Mewborn, and one of my colleagues, Luis Avila, met us down there. We were talking with the New York City Office of Emergency Management, the fire department, and other responding agencies, but we weren’t there gawking and looking at what was happening. Certainly, we had an awareness of what was going on around us, but we were mission focused. It was us trying to figure out, how was the Greater New York chapter going to be a part of the response? How are we going to help the victims? How are we going to help the family members of the victims?
And that's what led us into the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center that morning, looking for a room where we could set up a family assistance center. And we happened to be in the Winter Garden when the first tower came down. We ran outside of that building back towards the water. Being focused on our mission that morning actually saved our lives. That's what I've come to realize. So not allowing yourself to stray too far out of your lane and start doing things that aren't within your immediate mission are really crucial to the success of your operation and your response.
I remember coming back from the towers, the destruction downtown, and you could barely walk across the plaza at the Greater New York chapter, because there were that many people that were waiting online to find out how could they help, where could they make a donation, where could they donate blood, how could they sign up to be volunteers. For the days, weeks, months following the events of that day, people came together. We were one Red Cross in the true meaning of the word that day.
That was the largest response that we had ever been a part of, but we had our day-to-day operation that needed to continue. There were still residential fires, and other incidents that were happening the day of 9/11. There were a number of people that were assigned to the immediate response to the events of 9/11, and the rest of us remained focus on our day-to-day mission.
I wanted to work in the 9/11 operation. To say I wasn't a little disappointed would be a lie. But at that moment, I also understood that our day-to-day work was as important. The Greater New York chapter was one of the busiest chapters from a day-to-day perspective in the country. And that didn't change following the events of 9/11. So, I took my assignment. I knew what my mission was, and I was proud to be able to support the chapter along with my colleagues on the days after.
Right now, I'm the emergency operations coordinator for the National Transportation Safety Board. We respond to transportation disasters across the country. We work with local state and federal agencies in their planning and training for a family assistance operation in the aftermath of a mass casualty incident.
One of the things that I love about this position is that the NTSB has a partnership with the American Red Cross National headquarters. I still work very closely with the American Red Cross. It's a great feeling to go onsite of a major transportation accident and see Red Crossers out there and be able to introduce myself as a former Red Crosser, and still do amazing work with them.
I think what really prepared me for this position, gave me the experience, the training, and just the resume to be chosen, is the 10 years that I spent in emergency management or disaster services in New York, working at the American Red Cross with an incredible group of people. I don't know if there's anywhere else in the country that you can get the same level of experience. Everything from residential fires to manhole explosions, water main breaks, you name it, it happens in New York City, and the American Red Cross, and our mission is to help people in need.” –Max Green
Putting Her Diverse Language Skills to Use as a Red Crosser
Did you know more than 60 languages are spoken by @RedCrossNY team members? Sanasa Kaba, originally from the West African nation of Guinea, is an AmeriCorps member serving the American Red Cross. She teaches Emergency Preparedness courses and provides disaster relief. “In additional to French [Guinea’s national language], I’m from the Mandingo tribe so I speak Mandingo as well as Sussu, another dialect,” said Kaba. “Also, I learned Spanish when I arrived in the United States in 2010.” Kaba has used her French on multiple occasions teaching emergency readiness and she utilized her Spanish during a deployment to Puerto Rico earlier this year after a major earthquake.
Lifelong Volunteer Doesn't Let the Pandemic Slow Down Her Work
Carletha Woodley-Alves has been a Red Cross volunteer since she was a young girl living in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a small Caribbean nation. She continued on with the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Red Cross Society through the rest of her childhood and part of her early adulthood and she joined the NY Red Cross shortly after moving to Brooklyn in 2001. A few weeks ago, when the Red Cross put out a call for volunteers to deploy to the devastating wildfires out West, she felt compelled to help. As she said: “I think about the people who need help even though it’s in the middle of a pandemic. We need to get them the help and support their needs. I decided that I’m not going to let the pandemic stop me from doing what I enjoy doing and helping people.”
"It's the best feeling in the world to help someone else."
Since she was a young girl in Haiti, Natacha Gomez has sought out ways to give back and help others. Gomez recalls her parents prioritizing community service at an early age: “They told me that unless you put yourself in someone else's shoes you cannot help that person.” She has carried on that philosophy throughout her life, including her recent work with the American Red Cross. Gomez recently deployed to the Gulf where she helped evacuees before and after Hurricane Laura’s landfall. “It’s the best feeling in the world being able to wake up and help someone else.”
Finds Joy and a Sense of Reward as a Volunteer in the Emergency Communications Center
"The Emergency Communications Center is the brain. We take care of the five boroughs, all of NJ, three-quarters of NY State, all the calls come into there, so it’s very busy, and I find it challenging, because there’s always something different. I don’t get paid to do this but there’s an intrinsic reward to doing this. I’m filling a void as a Red Cross volunteer, and there’s so much joy in that. I’m here 2 to 3 days a week, and as a volunteer I could only be here 2 to 3 times a month. But I really feel like I’m a critical part of the Red Cross, and I like to think that they can’t function without me", Volunteer Michael Nelson
J Gayle Gaymon
Inspired to Become a Lifelong Blood Donor by the Death of Tennis Great Arthur Ashe
"I started donating blood many, many years ago when Arthur Ashe died…Arthur Ashe was this great tennis player and he had quadruple heart surgery and died from tainted blood and I promised myself, that’s when I made my commitment that I wanted to donate 50 times to save 50 lives. I met that goal, I donated 48 times with the Red Cross and 2 times with New York Blood Bank. I wanted to be able to give back, because there’s always something greater than yourself and knowing that you can save a life. You can positively impact someone else’s life and that’s what I wanted to do. Always help someone. The art of wellbeing and well-doing is more important than just being and living." - J Gayle Gaymon, Blood Services and Sound the Alarm volunteer
"I definitely fit in at the Red Cross and I would never leave."
“I first came to the Red Cross through New York State Chaplain Task Force. We had to take a couple of courses dealing with disaster relief. It was an introduction to everything the Red Cross does, and each department was coming in and giving us a workshop, and so forth. I was so intrigued by all of it; I was like, ‘wow, why didn’t I do this before?’ When I got my Red Cross ID and I started exploring the things that I could do and what I could get involved in. I started with Home Fire Preparedness; doing the smoke alarm installations and educating people on fire safety. And then I saw Disaster Responders responding to fires, and I’m like, ‘Where you going? Whatchu doing?’ I was introduced to it and I got sent out one time, and I’ve just been going out ever since. I fell in love with it. It’s like a hand and glove. I definitely fit in at the Red Cross and I would never leave. Things that I’m doing outside of the Red Cross may consume me a little bit, but I’ll always have a heart, mind and thought with the Red Cross.” –Jamillah Abdul-Kareem @fromglam2islam, Hip-Hop Pioneer, Crisis Chaplain and Red Cross Volunteer
"Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person who is doing it."
“Alex tries to be a strict father—he loves discipline—but at the same time, he is very nurturing and caring. He spends his time taking care of his little girls—feeding them, cooking for them, bathing them, reading them books, playing with them, and doing everything he can to make sure they are happy and loved. I would say, Alex is relentless as a dad, and it is hard for me to catch up. He is a partner who never slows down and believes that only by doing things one can get them done. As he always says, ‘Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person who is doing it.’ For Alex, being a father is important, but it was challenging as well. He did not grow up with his dad and did not learn through good modeling. It became ‘trial and error’ with his five children, but now he learns every day what it means to be a good dad and a partner.
When it comes to volunteering, Alex also does not cut corners, giving his 100%. He has been teaching preparedness for five years now, and he has done hundreds of presentations and mentored many volunteers. If someone asks me to describe Alex in one word, I would say ‘hardworking.’ Alex loves to dream big and has new ideas, and I think I am a more pragmatic or by-the-book person. He does not say ‘no,’ and I only say ‘yes’ after I think about it. We are very different, but we also complement each other in many ways.” – Olga Wallace, Regional Emergency Preparedness Specialist. Alex Poku has been a volunteer with the Greater New York Chapter since 2014.
“I think in everything we do in life we prepare for things. We prepare for careers, for families, but nobody really seems to take an interest in preparing for disasters. If we as a community can be more prepared, it makes it easier for us to respond better to our own disasters instead of relying on others. I didn’t have a lot of role models growing up so I think in a way I’ve always wanted to picture myself in a position where if I had the opportunity to help others I would. Now having a young son it makes it easier for me to want to set a good example. And I think if you watch somebody’s action it makes it easier for you to emulate it.” -Alex Poku (Harriman, NY)