Submitted by Leslie Luther, Executive Director, Northwest Illinois Red Cross Chapter
It was unexpected, unplanned- an explosion that shot fireballs into the sky. Soon the building was engulfed in flames with smoke you could see for miles. Then, the air wasn’t safe to breathe. What a way to start a Monday. People living within a mile radius of the chemical plant had to leave. Some wondered, ‘where will I go?” But I knew they were in good hands.
As the smoke wafted around Rockton, Illinois- people waited. They waited for information, they waited for word on when they could go home, they waited for anything. The American Red Cross of Northwest Illinois had volunteers at work right away when we heard about the explosion- just minutes after the fire department did. Volunteers like Hank and Bernie started setting up a shelter at a nearby middle school. When people had to wait, at least they could be comfortable with us. They had 3 meals a day and plenty of snacks, clean water, and the company of our volunteers and each other. With smoke and fire swirling just miles away they were safe in the air-conditioned gym. Even their pets were with us! And together we rode out that storm.
When Hurricane Ida swept through the Gulf coast and left a trail of destruction, Illinois volunteers stepped up again and within hours we had people from Northwest Illinois getting on planes or driving emergency response vehicles toward Louisiana. We’ll be there as long as we need to with volunteers rotating in for weeks at a time helping on this massive response. Volunteers bring their passion, their skills and their dedication to the Red Cross. Even people who don’t always have the time, seem to always have the heart.
These are our volunteers, but they’re also your neighbors. And after a challenging 16 months – where volunteer numbers have declined even though needs have not – I’m asking you to consider joining these local heroes as a disaster volunteer with the world’s largest humanitarian organization.
Volunteers truly make the Red Cross mission possible. More than 90 percent of what we do is led by your neighbors, your friends, your family, your co-workers. Disaster volunteers can serve in any number of roles, including assisting families after a fire, delivering meals to numerous people at a shelter, and dispatch guidance for our teams and partners. It all happens with plenty of training and support, and in just a few hours each month. And it comes to people when they need it most. Local Red Cross volunteers helped more than 9,135 individuals displaced by home fires or floods last year in Illinois. Our teams were a lifeline to families with nowhere else to stay, to parents processing how to talk to their children about losing a home, to apartment residents unsure of their next steps. For many people, on their darkest day, it was a volunteer with the Red Cross who helped to see them through.
But we need more volunteers. Frankly, the pandemic has understandably led some volunteers to put their commitments on pause, both virtual and in person. We’re also coming through some of the busiest months of local and national disaster response in our organization’s history. As we continue to adapt – with an eye on innovation but always with the health and safety of our teams at the forefront – it’s also important to bolster our volunteer ranks with new members and people from a wider range of our communities.
Our volunteers come from all backgrounds and walks of life, just like the people we serve. I’m extremely grateful for the compassion and talent that our hundreds of local volunteers provide each year with disaster preparedness, response and recovery. As someone who works alongside them – regardless of what’s in the forecast – I’ve learned what it takes to make our communities prepared and resilient. For starters, it takes involvement from our volunteers, people like you.
You can make an impact in our communities as a Disaster Action Team volunteer. Take the first step. Visit RedCross.org and click “Volunteer”. Or reach out to us to find out more at VolunteerIllinois@redcross.org or by calling 312-729-6222.
Leslie Luther is the Executive Director of the Northwest Illinois chapter of the American Red Cross of Illinois, which provides disaster relief and preparedness; blood collection and distribution; support for veterans, service members and their families; and life-saving trainings like CPR and swim safety.