Region’s Red Cross opens doors to volunteers

KINDERHOOK–The tragic earthquake in Haiti may be almost 2,000 miles away, but even at the Red Cross of Northeastern New York offices in Albany the phone has been ringing off the hook with offers to help.

While the local office isn’t directly involved in sending volunteers to Haiti–that’s handled at the state and national level–the Red Cross nevertheless appreciates the offers, said Siobhan Kent, communications manager with the local chapter, which covers eight counties in the Capital District, including Columbia and Greene.

The Red Cross does have many ways people can help on a local level, though, and needs more registered volunteers in Columbia County so the organization can be better prepared for disaster relief. Even before the tragedy in Haiti the Red Cross had scheduled a countywide event Monday, January 25 to inform residents how they can become involved. The gathering will be held at the Ichabod Crane Middle School on Route 9 north of Valatie from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

“A disaster like this one in Haiti really shows people the work of the Red Cross and our scope,” said Ms. Kent. “I’m hoping one of the positive developments of this tragedy will be that people become more involved in supporting their communities here, too.”

During local disasters, like last winter’s devastating ice storm, volunteers always step forward offering to help. At the three Red Cross shelters set up in the county during the ice storm, people helped cook, check people in and more, and Ms. Kent said the Red Cross appreciated the assistance. But most people don’t realize that to work with the Red Cross for any length of time, and to do certain types of work, volunteers must be registered and trained.

“For local disasters, we do use what we call ‘spontaneous volunteers.’ They can volunteer for a short time before doing the paperwork needed to become a registered volunteer,” she said.

Registered volunteers are a key component in the Red Cross’s disaster response, because the organization can quickly mobilize those people. Of the Red Cross of Northeastern New York’s 1,000 registered volunteers, only 28 live in Columbia County. And only 10 of those Columbia County people have attended disaster training, making them qualified to help in the aftermath of disasters like fires.

“For people who become registered volunteers, there are so many different roles you can play to help disaster victims,” said Ms. Kent. “You can deliver supplies, counsel people, work with the media and more. It’s not just responding to fires.”

Other Red Cross programs and services that require help include:

*A free telephone reassurance program, where volunteers call elderly folks to check on them and have a friendly conversation (this can be done from a volunteer’s home)

*Fundraising

*Writing newsletters

*Answering phones or putting together packets at the headquarters on Everett Road in Albany.

“We need a lot of things from volunteers, but what we really need are people who can help us respond to local disasters and people who can teach classes like CPR and water safety,” added Ms. Kent.

Volunteers who help out with Red Cross events like blood drives are also needed and appreciated, but they aren’t usually registered volunteers because they become involved through church or community groups.

At the January 25 gathering, the Red Cross will give a quick overview of everything it does. Then personnel from the various volunteer areas will talk about what volunteers can do and how to become involved. Applications will be available that night or can be downloaded from the Red Cross website www.redcrossneny.org.

Becoming a registered volunteer may require courses like CPR and a background check.

“We try to make the application effort as easy as possible,” said Ms. Kent. “The effort required really depends on the type of volunteer role you want to take. There are lots of different trainings you can take depending on how you want to help.”

Even for those who are interested in becoming volunteers on national and international relief efforts, the meeting at Ichabod Crane would be the proper first step, she added. Those volunteers must start with local level training and also need a recommendation from a local Red Cross chapter.

“The relief effort in Haiti will go on for years. We’re still helping communities rebuild after the devastating Indonesian tsunami, and it’s been five years,” said Ms. Kent. “This earthquake is so devastating people would have ample time to train for that effort.”

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