August 03, 2020

Red Cross’ passion: volunteers

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Red Cross offices in Bangor were swamped with calls from Maine people eager to do anything they could to help victims of the tragedy.

Not only did they overwhelm the local blood center, some waiting three hours or more to give a pint to the cause, they donated money in unprecedented amounts and even offered to drive down to New York to help pull bodies from the rubble and to assist the emergency workers.

Now, 13 months later, the blood supply is low again, the charitable contributions have tapered off, and many of those would-be good Samaritans have settled back into a more normal kind of life that has largely subdued their earlier passion for volunteerism. That change in mood doesn’t surprise Mike Henderson, the director of emergency services for the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross in Bangor.

“If you look at any times of crisis in American history you see the same kind of phenomenon,” he said last week, “It’s happened during world wars, for instance, when there were huge numbers of people who wanted to help the cause initially. September 11 was painfully obvious to everyone, of course, but people now may not feel the need to volunteer as strongly as they did back then.

“What they forget, however, is that volunteers are needed to help in the small-scale tragedies that happen every day here in Maine. And the number of volunteers to do that is seriously low.”

Henderson, a high-energy ex-Marine who became the chapter’s director a few months ago, said he could use at least 80 trained volunteers scattered throughout the counties of Aroostook, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington and part of Waldo. Half would be available to respond to house fires – which account for most of the chapter’s disaster efforts – and to arrange for the emergency food, clothing, shelter and other needs of families suddenly made homeless.

The others would be on hand to set up and staff mass shelters that might be needed in their areas, such as public facilities used throughout Maine during the severe ice storm of 1998.

To understand how far he is from that goal, consider this: Aside from the handful of volunteers working out of the chapter’s branch in Presque Isle, Henderson now has only about eight active volunteers, most of them in Greater Bangor, to serve approximately 177 far-flung Maine towns.

Recent news accounts of the manpower shortage have yielded encouraging results. More than a dozen people have inquired about volunteer positions in the last few days, Henderson said, but many more are needed to administer relief efforts efficiently.

“One of our biggest handicaps is our enormous geographical size,” he said. “This chapter serves the largest Red Cross region east of the Mississippi. That means it takes a couple of hours or more for someone around here to reach families burned out of their homes in Piscataquis or Washington counties.”

Part of the difficulty in recruiting volunteers, Henderson said, is that many people have only a limited understanding of the role of the Red Cross and of the skills necessary to be part of relief work. Some know the Red Cross only as the place to give blood. Others know it only as the familiar emergency medical presence at large-scale natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes.

“Those kinds of disasters seem remote to Maine people, and give them the impression

that you need special medical skills or be highly trained to help, but that’s not true,” Henderson said. “If your only skill is that you are a good organizer, and are willing to take a call early in the morning to arrange emergency aid for people in your area, we can certainly use you.”

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