Responding to Typhoon Haiyan: What it means to be a Red Crosser

Story by Jen Pierce, Northeast Pennsylvania Region, Service to the Armed Forces and International Services Director

Everyone who came to the Filipino Outreach event.

Everyone who came to the Filipino Outreach event.

The last few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. I’m exhausted and drained.  Today, I’m taking time to answer a backlog of emails and knock out things from my To Do list, which have nothing to do with the Typhoon.  And I find it hard. I find it hard not to send one more email to one last lead that may know of yet another pocket of Filipino people in our region. I find it hard not to call or email my Filipino clients one last time to check that they are okay. My mind keeps drifting back to the information that our local Filipino families confided in us, like their feelings of fear regarding the safety of their relatives in the Philippines. Their feelings of helplessness.  Their sense of urgency in getting insulin for their sick mother.  Their sense of dread, that their loved ones are buried in the rubble, dead.  The stories of unimaginable hunger, thirst, and complete lack of shelter.

Event participants meet and talk with one another.

Event participants meet and talk with one another.

 So, as I try to wrap up things as the typhoon takes a back seat in peoples’ minds and in the media, I am left with the feeling that I didn’t really do enough to help our families and that I could have done more. Surely, me babbling on about what the Red Cross is doing to support the Philippine Red Cross cannot be comforting to people.  However, I can’t help but think that I at least showed that I cared and maybe that’s all that our local Filipino families needed.  When the Filipinos have huge smiles on their faces; when Filipino nuns grab and hold on to your hand; and when they ask to take a group photo with you and your volunteers, you start to think that you just might have provided a service.

Before Typhoon Haiyan, I had been in sort of a Red Cross slump, feeling that I was not accomplishing much. When will I be able to submit a Tracing Inquiry for a refugee? Was I making our region and my colleagues look good? You spend so much time with outreach and community partnership meetings, it’s easy to ask: “When am I actually going to help people?”  When you’re chipping away, little by little, at program development, it’s hard to feel that you’ve made a true difference.

Lisa Taylor offers coping strategies for stress.

Lisa Taylor offers coping strategies for stress.

But, after engaging colleagues, my supervisor, our CEO, and countless volunteers, I soon realized what it means to be a Red Crosser. Staff jumped through hoops to acquire resources and meeting space to host outreach events for local Filipino family members. Interns called over a hundred places of worship, colleges, and universities in an effort to find the Filipino population. Disaster Mental Health volunteers agreed, without hesitation, to provide psychological aid and comfort to Filipinos, with less than 24 hours notice. Colleagues shared their dwindling supply of Mickey Mouse Dolls, meant for Disaster clients, to give to Filipino children. Volunteers drove 2 hours to assist with Tracing Services. Supervisors said, “Yes, buy the families donuts and coffee.” To be a Red Crosser, you pull together what little resources you have to help clients. No matter how busy you are, you take the time out to help another person. You work a lot longer than usual in the office and miss your family.  You send email after email until your eyes hurt. You sacrifice. You say, “I don’t know the answer, but I will find out as soon as possible.”

The following quote by Anderson Cooper was read by a Filipino man at the close of one of our outreach support groups:  “When everything else is taken away, broken and battered, soaked raw, stripped bare, you see things. You see people as they really are. This week in Tacloban, Samar and Cebu, amidst the hunger and thirst, the chaos and confusion, we've seen the best in the Filipino people. Their strength, their courage, I can't get it out of my mind. Imagine the strength it takes for a mother to search alone for her missing kids, the strength to sleep on the street near the body of your child. We've seen people with every reason to despair, every right to be angry, instead find ways to laugh, and to love, to stand up, to move forward.  A storm breaks wood and bone, brings hurt and heartbreak.  In the end, the wind, the water, the horror it brings is not the end of the story.  With aid and assistance, compassion and care, this place, these people...they will make it through. They already survived the worst. They're bowed, perhaps tired and traumatized, but they are not broken.  Mabuhay [live] Philippines! Maraming salamat [thank you] for all you've shown us. Maraming salamat for showing us all how to live.”

Jen Pierce shows everyone the Red Cross Tracing Services program.

Jen Pierce shows everyone the Red Cross Tracing Services program.

Being a Red Crosser means crying with a family after this quote is read. Being a Red Crosser is thinking about your clients late at night and during your dinner, and well beyond the months following the disaster. Being a Red Crosser means to care. And if caring is all you can do, then you have served. You have helped.  And I am grateful for this opportunity to serve and am appreciate of my mentors in headquarters and colleagues I have met through the Restoring Family Links training for empowering me to provide these services. 

A special thanks goes to those volunteers and fellow staff that offered their full and timely support in these local outreach efforts:  Interns Melanie Hurter and Emily Bernstein; Disaster Mental Health volunteers Jenny Bergstresser, Debbie Guy, Sherrie Sneed, Lisa Taylor and John Weaver; International Services volunteers, Andrew Oppenheimer, PhD and Christine Carpino, PhD; Wyoming Valley Office Manager Susan Meyers; Lackawanna Office Manager Maureen Shea; Berks Office Manager Sherry Bingaman; Berks Chapter Executive Janet Curtis; Emergency Services Officer Adrian Grieve;  Disaster Program Specialist Nina Johnson; Communications Officer Jen Loconte; Communications Intern Andrew Borowiec; Chief Executive Officer Peter Brown; and all of the International Services staff in ARC National Headquarters.  Each played a vital role in this project.