Written by Kevin Coffey, Chief Development Officer, Eastern New York Region
We are entering that special time of year where we all ponder the question: “What am I grateful for?” In my family, we have a Thanksgiving tradition of sharing something we are thankful for as we prepare to feast. The answers of health, family, and happiness usually echo among the busy table of 20+ family members, young and old. However, as I reflect about this year, there are so many things I’m thankful for, it is difficult for me to boil it down to one catch-all item. Instead I want to share this story….
On Sunday, September 17, I was enjoying a relaxing day with my family in Saratoga Springs, walking through Congress Park and watching my three wonderful children run carefree, chasing the ducks. It was a welcomed reprieve from work at the Red Cross, where we were responding to historic hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Our team was working around the clock, raising funds to support disaster relief efforts. Although I had a tinge of guilt that I was not working on this Sunday, as thousands of people affected by disasters were working to rebuild their lives, I needed this day off and my family really needed me to be present.
Around 12pm, I received a text message from a local Red Cross board member: “Hey Kevin. I have a family friend in Florida that was affected by Irma and needs some help. Can you reach out?” Without hesitation, I responded: “Sure. Give me a number and I’ll see what I can do…”
Truth be told, at this moment, I was terrified. I had been raising money for disaster relief operations, but the real relief work is done by our trained volunteers and disaster specialists. What the heck would I be able to do from a couple hundred miles away?
I called the number I had been given, knowing nothing besides the fact that this was a family friend of someone I know. The phone rang, I introduced myself, and instantly I knew this was not going to be a simple request.
A weak and shaky voice responded and told me her situation. She lived in Northeast Florida, in the Palm Bay area, and had been without power for a week. She was battling cancer, was on oxygen, and had been unable to use her C-PAP device due to the power outage. Under the advisement of her physician, she was directed to stay home because she had open sores that could be prone to infection in an emergency shelter. A giving soul, she had shared her own food and water with neighbors earlier in the week, assuming things would get better before she needed those supplies for herself.
In our brief conversation, I told this woman that we would do our best to take care of her. “Hang in there… I’m going to make a few calls,” I said, although in my head I thought, “You’re hundreds of miles away. What can you possibly do?” As I hung up the phone, I turned to my wife: “I need to take care of something… do you mind?”
I’m thankful for my family. Reason number 597863413 why my wife is awesome…after managing 3 young kids for the past 3 weeks while my team and I worked extra long hours responding to disasters, she was about to be deserted on a day when I had promised I would be around and disconnected. Hearing my request and sensing it was important, she simply smiled and said, “Take care of it.” As I sat in the car (tearing a page out of my vehicle manual to make notes on solving this challenge), she ventured alone and out-manned into a costume store to outfit our kids for Halloween. Bravery manifest in my loving partner.
I’m thankful for the kindness of strangers. My first effort was calling 1-800-RED-CROSS. You would think that as a Red Cross staff member, maybe I’d have a special hotline or connection, but I accessed services the same way anyone in our country would…I picked up the phone. As I relayed the story to the call center volunteer, I was a bit worked up. The friendly voice on the other end of the line calmed me down and gave me a few ideas. “Let’s open a case for her,” she said. “That way we can get started now, and the folks on the ground can pick things up there.” It was a small sign of hope that the woman in need was in our system and that the Red Cross would find a way to help her. I’ll never know her name, but that first volunteer I spoke to gave me hope. We were going to find this person and make things better.
I’m thankful for being part of a team. Armed with a case number, I used the Red Cross Emergency App to locate the nearest Red Cross shelter. It was a community center about 20 miles away from the woman’s home. I called the shelter and the phone rang through to the kitchen, where a volunteer who was obviously very busy managing all the residents meals picked up. I blurted out a story of a woman in need and pleaded for someone to help me. “Hold on,” the volunteer in the kitchen responded, and she put the local Red Cross Disaster Program Manager on the phone. I was a bit more rehearsed in explaining my situation by now, and given that I understood the Disaster Program Manager’s role on the ground, I knew I had reached someone who could help. He patiently listened to my story, took down my information and assured me, “We’ll take care of this…”
It was strange. I have only had this feeling a few times in my life, most notably when my wife and I welcomed our children. There is a strange sense of peace you get from people like nurses and doctors who, knowing how nervous you are, share the quiet confidence of their profession to assure you that you are in good hands. To the volunteers and Disaster Program Manager at that shelter…thank you for giving me that sense of peace.
I returned to my family, and while I tried my best to be present, I was restless, like a first-time father in the delivery room, waiting for what would happen next. The updates would come over the next couple of hours:
- Local Emergency Manager and Red Cross are working with partners to find resources.
- Volunteers are arranging delivery of food and water. More to come…
- If the resident needs to be moved, we have a hotel secured.
- Two cases of water and a week’s supply of food are on their way.
At 4:35pm, I answered a call that left me speechless. Fighting back tears, the woman in Northeast Florida told me:
“Thank you…I didn’t realize how thirsty I was until they delivered water…Thank you so much.”
Our conversation lasted a few minutes while we shared a small bit of our lives. Strangers a few hours earlier, we had been bonded by this terrible disaster. We texted throughout the evening, both nourished by the many acts of kindness that made this all possible. At 7:35pm, power was restored to her home and she sent me a text message:
“Kevin, power is on!! I’m cranking up air til I make snow! […] Thank you so much, I will pray and when I have the strength I will go find the center and volunteer!!!”
I’m thankful for my community. Locally, we deployed 115 Red Cross volunteers to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Nate and the California Wildfires. These heroes answer the call when disaster strikes, and they leave their families to help others in their darkest moments. Our work happens thanks to the power of volunteers, and their work would not be possible without generous support from our community.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reminded of all the kind people in this world who work tirelessly to fulfill the Red Cross mission every day. Our volunteers and staff, of course, but also our supportive families. Our donors. Our community partners. Those who advocate for us and stand alongside us. We are called to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies time and time again, and I’m deeply grateful for every person who answers that call.
At the American Red Cross, our work is never done. Find out how you can help answer the call at redcross.org/eny.