Seniors Keep Red Cross Going Strong

By Mike Morris March 15, 2009 15:56

Wayne and Gloria Harvey are among the oldest Red Cross volunteers in the organization’s Mother Lode District, but that doesn’t stop them from lending a hand in Tuolumne County and beyond.

The Long Barn residents, 80 and 71 respectively, didn’t hesitate a second to spend three weeks in Texas helping victims of Hurricane Ike, the nation’s most destructive storm of 2008. On a typical day, the retired educators drove around damaged neighborhoods handing out chili, corn and peaches for lunch. A few hours later they repeated the same routine with ribs and mashed potatoes for dinner.

“It’s nice to be able to come along and say, Hey, we’ve got a hot meal for you,” says Gloria Harvey.”That’s why we’re doing it — to make life easier for individuals during tough times.”

Helping people during times of despair is the Red Cross mission. Here in the Mother Lode District, which covers Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and Alpine counties, that typically involves assisting victims of house fires.

“The biggest misconception is that all we do is big disasters,” says Carole Mutzner, the district’s community outreach manager. “People immediately picture gymnasiums with cots and hundreds of people. But the majority of what we do is single-family house fires.”

Mutzner is one of 19 paid staff members in the Red Cross’s Sacramento-Sierra Chapter, which covers nine Northern California counties. The organization is funded solely by donations. Two years ago the district had 35 employees, but the declining economy has taken a toll – making volunteer support even more vital.

“If I did not have our volunteers, there is no way we could do what we do,” Mutzner says.

The district has about 175 active volunteers, and of those, about “75 hardcore volunteers” in Tuolumne County. Most of those are seniors who are well-aware of the foothills’ fire menace.

“Up here, it’s neighbors helping neighbors,” Mutzner says. “Because our volunteers are local, there’s that emotional connection with the people we’re helping.”

Red Cross volunteers provide victims of both wildfires and house fires with what they need most, be it short-term lodging, money for groceries, clothing or just a shoulder to cry on. “It takes a pretty dedicated individual to get that call at 2 a.m. with someone saying, There’s been a fire and I need you to go help,” Mutzner says. “And yet they do it uncomplainingly.”

Cathie Peacock, 64, knows that phone call all too well. Following the massive Stanislaus Complex Fire in 1987, Peacock took disaster-service classes through the Red Cross and learned how to set up shelters and feed large numbers of people.

Her volunteer work with the Red Cross has since taken her from earthquakes in Southern California to floods in Washington. She even moved to Oklahoma for four years to help with the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings.

“For me, the Red Cross has a value system that is closest to what mine is – humanitarian  acts, no exclusions, serving people who need some help to get back on their feet,” the Long Barn resident says.

Of all the disasters she has been sent to, helping those affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was the most memorable, Peacock says. “That was one of those things you never forget. It was the mental trauma – it was a manmade disaster and it made people angry.”

Recently hired to manage Interfaith Community Social Services in Sonora, Peacock plans to continue her Red Cross work, training others to respond to national disasters like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, as well as house fires in Tuolumne County, which she says “can be just as devastating, just as sad” as large-scale disasters.

Among local volunteers are about 20 caseworkers who respond to house fires in teams of two – usually a newer volunteer partnered with an experienced one. One interviews and comforts the family while the other completes the required paperwork. The district’s most recent statistics show that between July 2007 and June 2008, the Red Cross helped 29 local families, including 55 adults and 34 children.

“Standing with people in the ashes of their home can be very emotionally wrenching,” Mutzner admits. “You sometimes feel like crying, but you don’t want to do that because it’s not helpful. When you step into your job as a Red Cross volunteer, you just have to take a step back to help them mend their loss and get them back on the road to recovery.”

Despite an influx of volunteers after Hurricane Katrina, the district needs more. Volunteer jobs range from answering phones and completing office work to teaching first aid and setting up shelters. Typically, newcomers take a few classes to find the best fit for their interests and skills.

“It’s an amazing organization with something for everyone, and we provide all the training,” says Mutzner.

A desire to give something back to the community is what inspired the Harveys to volunteer. They met over a school district’s collective bargaining table in the late 1970s, married in 1983, and took their first Red Cross class 10 years ago after retiring. They have since set up fire evacuation centers in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

Wayne Harvey, the oldest active volunteer in the Mother Lode District, admits the work can be exhausting. Out-of-area deployments are for three weeks at a time, and in Texas, he and his wife slept on shelter cots for 17 days.

At the same time, it is immensely rewarding. People are so thankful for the help, Harvey says, and often seem “in disbelief” that others would give up their own time to provide life’s necessities – food, shelter, water, comfort.

“Life’s been good to us,” he explains, “and we just want to share some of that with people in need.”

American Red Cross, Mother Lode District

Location: 13669 Mono Way, Sonora

Manager: Carole Mutzner

Phone: 533-1513

Hours: 9am-2pm Monday-Thursday, and by appointment

Web site: www.sacsierraredcross.org

Main fundraiser: Bowl-a-Rama, set for Oct. 24, 2009

For those interested in volunteering, Call Mutzner for details.

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Mike Morris March 15, 2009 15:56
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