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Volunteer spotlight: Be ready to help in a disaster, on short notice, with the Red Cross

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2020 9:41:42 PM
Modified: 10/17/2020 9:41:39 PM

The Red Cross is need of volunteers to travel to areas experiencing natural disasters including hurricanes and wildfires to help set up emergency shelters.

“We have had a lot of volunteers step back due to the pandemic, and that’s one of the reasons finding a volunteer workforce at this time has been difficult,” said Erica Fuller, senior volunteer recruitment specialist, for the Northern New England Region of the American Red Cross. “A lot of our volunteers are older, and part of that at-risk population. Many of our longtime volunteers are stepping back because of their safety and their health.”

While volunteers can also respond to natural disasters in Northern New England and their communities, there is an even greater need for people who can travel to an affected area for around two weeks at a time.

“It was just an incredible amount of need,” said Gary Zawilinski, an Enfield resident who spent two weeks in early September helping Hurricane Laura evacuees in Louisiana.

In his role as a shelter manager, Zawilinski helped organize other volunteers and assist 385 evacuees who stayed in the hotel by connecting them with meals, laundry and other needs.

“People don’t have their medication,” he said. “They don’t have eyeglasses or they lost them.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Red Cross has changed the way it sets up emergency shelters. Previously, an open area such as a gym could be used, but due to social distancing guidelines, people in need of assistance are set up in hotels.

“That’s an entirely new ball game to deal with,” Zawilinski said.

Masks are required, social distancing is practiced and there’s a lot more sanitizing to do. More than three dozen volunteers from Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have deployed to disaster areas this season.

“Some of those folks have deployed multiple times, they’re on their third round this fall,” Fuller said. All volunteers and clients in shelters are required to wear personal protective equipment, he said.

Zawilinski started volunteering for the Red Cross in 2017 and uses a combination of vacation and volunteer days provided by his employer, TomTom, to go on deployments.

His first was to respond to a wildfire in California, and he goes on one deployment per year.

“You’re giving a lot of direct help to a lot of people,” he said. “You know you’re making a difference in their life at that time.”

Volunteers must be 18 or older, pass a background check, and complete a three-hour online training course. The Red Cross pays all costs associated with deployments, including travel, rental vehicles and food.

“It’s more about training to be ready and then when the opportunity arises, they’re ready to jump in in a pinch,” Fuller said. “We often have married couples who will deploy together and spend their entire deployment together, so that is a definite possibility.”

After training, volunteers can let the Red Cross know what time periods they can help.

“If folks want to deploy, the chance is very high,” Fuller said.

Many volunteers keep a bag ready to go in case they’re called upon to respond.

“You’ll get a call and you’ll need to be in the air within 24 hours,” Zawilinski said. “It’s an extremely fulfilling experience. Just be ready to be flexible, adaptable and work hard. It’s the most fulfilling experience I’ve ever had because you really are helping a lot of people very directly. Worth every second.”

Editor’s note: Sign up to volunteer at redcross.org/volunteertoday or contact Erica Fuller at Erica.fuller4@redcross.org or 802-735-8842 for more information.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

Valley News

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