Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why I am a Red Cross Volunteer

At my University there has been a Red Cross Club for a few years. And our local American Red Cross chapter finally discovered them. So I was there today at their second meeting of the year to talk about the Red Cross and the VA and volunteering off campus. I spoke about the things we do as emergency services volunteers, responding to fires, floods, hurricanes, storms, and so forth. Of Health & Safety, teaching classes. Of Service to the Armed Forces, of having others in my unit who were deployed who got the calls that they should come home while there was time. I suppose that this audience probably were more interested in this talk then my students in class are.

I started volunteering for the Red Cross when I was in college. I was a volunteer EMT, and since I was learning CPR, I also became an instructor. Our EMS organization taught classes on campus to university staff and to students (it was how the organization raised funds). And I taught classes in the community as an instructor for the Red Cross chapter.

I left that behind when I graduated and started work. Work and grad school just squeezed that out of my life for a while. Then when I went back to grad school for a PhD I started volunteering again, this time in emergency services. My degree was in modeling operations. The Red Cross gave me the opportunity to take part in operations.

It is not just that the Red Cross conducts operations. It conducts them under some of the most difficult constraints for operations. In disaster response, we do not choose the time, place or scale, and we do not get to choose who responds. Those who plan and run the operation work with the resources and personnel available at the time and place. The current classical situation is a hurricane. And to work in that setting competently, with the chaos of an unknown and uncertain situation where the pressure of people whose lives are at stake is a stress and challenge only matched by combat against a willful and capable opponent.

What to tell these college undergraduates that perhaps volunteering with the Red Cross or with Veterans Affairs is worthy of their time? I had three areas for them.

1. This was good and meaningful tasks. Granted, there were other opportunities for good and meaningful things that they will be provided on a college campus. With the Red Cross and VA staff and volunteers where people who have done things. At both, everyone there has had the experience of being in high stress situations and having to act and make decisions. Whether it is a Red Cross volunteer who is the team lead at a house fire where the family has no where to go, no food and only the clothes on their back, or the nurse who has had a patient crash, they would be with people who have experienced life and can get things done.

2. The Red Cross and the VA trains their volunteers. For those who volunteer over years, they will be trained to do their tasks, but also about dealing with people and dealing with life in all its aspects, both the good and bad. To recognize what is important and what is not.

3. I also told them that I was a professor. And that this semester, there is a group in my department whose senior design project is with the local Red Cross Chapter. Because the Red Cross and the VA are not just another charity or hospital, but they are organizations that reach out into their communities and interact with them in complex ways. And because of this someone with a little curiosity will quickly see there are many questions to be asked, ways of handling difficult issues to develop, and resource limitations that need to be dealt with. So I told them that I would like to see members of this club who volunteer with the Red Cross and the VA over the course of their college years to be doing senior projects, senior thesis and class papers based what they observed and did with the Red Cross and VA. So they can take what they are learning and put it in context with real problems effecting real people.

This fall, the first Pitt students have started volunteering at the VA under the Red Cross Veterans Affairs Voluntary Services partnership, after going through orientations in spring. This year, they are being introduced to the Red Cross and VA at the beginning of the year before they have settled into their routines. And these students will see a part of life greater then what they would get if they did not leave their campus.
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