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Volunteers Map Fire-Affected Neighborhoods in Chile

Alissa and DrewWhen news of a major fire in Valparaíso, Chile made headlines on Monday, some people sent donations. Some people took to social media. And some people mapped.

Not wasting any time, digital volunteers gathered at the American Red Cross headquarters Monday morning, grabbed some caffeine and began to make a detailed map of neighborhoods affected by the fire.

The volunteers were in town attending a conference about OpenStreetMap—crowd-sourced mapping technology that’s been called the “Wikipedia of maps.” They congregated at the Red Cross building to work on individual projects, but when they heard that local Chilean mappers, Red Cross disaster specialists, and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) were calling for help in Valparaíso, 16 digital mappers volunteered to pitch in.

In the span of a few hours, they were able to build a map of Chilean neighborhoods that had not previously existed. Using satellite imagery, they traced the outline of buildings that stood before the fire. Responders can compare this “before” map with the post-fire landscape to understand the amount of damage done by the disaster. Stephen Smith of Burlington, Vermont explained it to me like this, “With a big fire, it’s difficult to know what was destroyed. If you can see where buildings used to stand, responders might know where to look for survivors.” Stephen learned how to use the OpenStreetMap technology in less than 10 minutes and was able to trace about 100 buildings in just an hour.

The Red Cross finds digital maps increasingly useful during international disasters. When Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines last November, the Red Cross and HOT asked volunteers to build a map of storm-affected towns and 1,700 people answered the call. The Red Cross loaded the updated maps onto relief workers’ GPS devices—it not only saved them time navigating to villages while delivering relief supplies, but also helped teams to assess damages.

While Monday’s volunteers had a special interest in mapping from the get-go, one beautiful thing about this type of crowd-sourced mapping  is that people don’t need specialized skills to contribute. Anyone can learn how to map at OpenStreetMap and can find humanitarian mapping “tasks” at HOT’s website, where the Red Cross has also asked help mapping areas in Guinea and Mauritania.

The Intersection of Work and Volunteering

Post by Jai Nassim

You’ve probably noticed this week the Red Cross has been celebrating the good work of its volunteers. Volunteers come to us from all walks of life, and all backgrounds. It’s one of the things that make this organization a great place to volunteer—there’s something for everyone to do. In fact, volunteering can be as simple as showing up for work. Does your company have a volunteer program? If not, ask! Volunteering time with those you work with is a great way to give back to your community while building bonds between co-workers.

The Red Cross offers a variety of opportunities for employees to lend their time and skills to make a difference, such as volunteering in the community, hosting blood drives and leading Workplace Giving Programs. Here are a few Annual Disaster Giving Program partners whose employees have gone above and beyond to support the Red Cross and its mission year round:

State Farm
For the past year, State Farm and its employees have hosted more than 40 blood drives resulting in more than 2,000 units of blood collected and donated to the Red Cross. State Farm promotes wellness as part of its community outreach program and designates “Wellness Ambassadors” to coordinate and spread the word about blood drives throughout the organization. Amy Howard, employee health services representative and blood drive coordinator at State Farm, shared why she gives blood, “for me personally, it’s knowing that I have helped save somebody’s life. It’s also a personal goal of overcoming a fear of needles. If it saves somebody’s life, than I can get over my fear to do it…[we] just like to help others.”

Grainger has continued to support the Red Cross and its mission through employee, cash and product resources. Grainger’s investments have ensured that the Red Cross has a scalable volunteer workforce. They serve as the National Founding Sponsor of Ready When the Time Comes corporate volunteer program and are the National Launch Sponsor of Volunteer Connection, our online volunteer management system. Also, when disaster strikes, Grainger’s employees often step up to help the Red Cross with a financial gift.

University of Phoenix
University of Phoenix supports our Service to Armed Forces Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign, where its employees create and send holiday cards to active service members. Here’s a small sampling of what some University of Phoenix staff, students and faculty have written in the cards:


“Thank you for your service, your bravery and the sacrifices that you have made to defend our country. Even if you feel alone on the holiday, know that you are always cared about – Michael”

“Thank you for all you have done to keep us safe, even though it might have been hard for you to do it. When you come back I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe and welcome you with open arms – U.S. Citizen”

“As a former service member I know the pain of deployment – especially around the holidays. Nevertheless, enjoy one day of good chow and a phone call home. Keep safe, and keep your buddies happy, and enjoy the well-deserved beer when you get home. Thanks for all you do! –Jonathan United States Air Force 2003-2007”

“’The task ahead of you is never greater than the power behind you’ – Sending you our love and support during this holiday season. Thank you for your service. We appreciate you! Sincerely, Michelle”

If your organization or corporation already partners with the Red Cross, please speak with your Red Cross relationship manager or your local Red Cross about your volunteerism needs.
If you’re new to the Red Cross and would like to know how to get your group involved, please contact your local chapter to learn more.

The Volunteers Reconnecting Families

As National Volunteer Week comes to a close, I am reminded that the work of American Red Cross volunteers never does. For our Restoring Family Links volunteers, the impact of their time and efforts literally brings families back together. This process can take months, sometimes even years.

Sometimes, volunteers are like Thu-Thuy Truong or Manyang Reath Ker, recipients of our services, whose most important relationships are pieced back together because of the American Red Cross and its volunteers, and are compelled to pay it forward. 

Manyang Reath Ker speaks about his experiences as a refugee and Restoring Family Links advocate.

Sometimes, volunteers are like Bob Wiltz or Elissa Maish whose tireless dedication are stemmed not from personal experiences of separation, but are fueled by seeing the impact of the work they do in their communities.

A student explains refugee camp layout and services provided during Volunteer Bob Wiltz's workshop.
A student explains refugee camp layout and services provided during Volunteer Bob Wiltz’s workshop.

Or sometimes, they are like Justin Coghill, and take personal passions like soccer and turn them into something much larger than that. Something that reaches entire groups of people beyond the city in which they reside.

Justin Coghill
Justin Coghill, right, at Iraqi American Society for Peace and Friendship One World Soccer Tournament for Refugee Youth.

Annually, the American Red Cross assists more than 5,000 families trying to reconnect with their loved ones in the U.S. and around the world. Many of the people behind those connections are volunteers, who work simply for the satisfaction of knowing they played a role in bringing two people together again and on donated time.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the American Red Cross. The volunteers behind the Restoring Family Links program are continuing to pump strong, and make us all proud.

No Stopping Us: Millennials Give Back and Get Ahead

Sometimes it’s easy to miss what’s right under your nose. Whether you’re a high school student looking for activities to give back or boost your college application, or away at college looking for that one way to have a lasting impact outside the classroom, the American Red Cross has a ton of opportunities across the country and in your community.

Red Cross youth options are typically diverse enough to fit into anyone’s interests, skills and schedule:

  • Summer Jobs: The Red Cross offers babysitting and lifeguarding training to help you stand out from the crowd of applicants and be prepared for whatever comes your way on the job.
  • Community and Giving Back: Disaster volunteers and blood donors play a huge role in what the Red Cross does each day. Whether it’s responding to home fires, comforting those affected by a tornado or helping save a life by donating blood, opportunities are always available on redcross.org.
  • Service and Leadership: Red Cross clubs, youth councils and camps all provide service and leadership opportunities to use your existing talents and even take on some new skills. One past camp student program director was even offered his first position after college as a part-time youth coordinator due to his dedication and success in managing a large-scale program. If you’re in college, your Greek or campus organization could fundraise for the Red Cross or help organize a blood drive to help fulfill service needs.

A full list of ideas is available on redcross.org.

Digital Mapping Volunteers Save Lives from the Comfort of their Homes

Relief workers use crowd-sourced maps in the Philippines

It’s National Volunteer Week – the time of year when we all put extra effort into recognizing the generous people who make the world a better place. This is the week to high-five that front desk volunteer at the blood donation center; fist bump a crossing guard; and flash those pearly whites at families working the soup kitchen.

There’s another group of volunteers who are not quite as easy to thank via high-fives and such: digital mappers. They’re not easily identifiable around town and aren’t typically donning Red Cross hats, but the work they perform is essential to Red Cross relief operations during international disasters.

Digital mappers update the maps of disaster-affected areas in the wake of international emergencies. These humanitarians use OpenStreetMap—crowd-sourced mapping technology—to create detailed and entirely open maps of the areas affected by disasters. Using their own computers, the volunteers trace roads, buildings and bodies of water. The Red Cross then uses these crowd-sourced maps to measure damage and deliver aid to people in need.

Volunteer mappers don’t need to be experts (or even close!) to update OpenStreetMap. In fact, Red Cross map guru, Dale Kunce (okay, he’s an expert) put a call out on his Twitter account the day after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in November – hoping that anyone with a few extra minutes would pitch in:

"Help the folks in the Philippines from your couch. Build a map."

Volunteers from across the country and around the world answered his call. About 1,700 remote mappers traced the affected area through the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). Together, they made 4.8 million edits to the Philippines base map that was loaded onto Red Cross relief workers’ GPS devices and utilized on the ground. When I talked to Robert Banick, a Red Cross mapper who deployed to the Philippines in the wake of the typhoon, he told me, “The maps saved [disaster specialists] from getting lost or wasting time when they had to reroute off damaged roads. They were able to give directions to Filipino drivers. It all leads to more efficient delivery of supplies to people affected by Typhoon Haiyan.”

The Red Cross and HOT are now organizing digital mapping volunteers to map cities and towns affected by Ebola – a deadly virus spreading in West Africa. These humanitarians made more than 1.5 million edits to OpenStreetMap last weekend, which is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of work by an advanced, paid mapper. This Ebola map adds focus and efficiency to the global Red Cross network’s assistance in these affected communities.

We can’t physically fist bump our digital mapping volunteers and I don’t think sending an emoji would express how impactful and important their work is to Red Cross international relief work. I guess a huge “THANK YOU” from the proverbial rooftops will need to do for now. THANK YOU, mappers!! Happy National Volunteer Week.

Want to be a digital mapping volunteer? Learning the ropes literally takes 10 minutes. Visit to OpenStreetMap to get started and let us know when you’ve begun. 

National Volunteer Week: It Takes a Village

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to raise spirits and support physical needs for an individual, a family, or a neighborhood – anyone affected by an unexpected disaster that brings a community to its knees.VolunteerCollage

While you probably know the Red Cross provides food, shelter, mental health services and many other support systems in large and small emergencies, did you know that 95 percent of that disaster work is accomplished by volunteers? 95 percent! The Red Cross clearly would not be successful without these generous contributions of time and expertise. Volunteers are your neighbors, your friends and your family – they are truly the face of the Red Cross.

In honor of National Volunteer Week, here are some of our favorite vignettes of volunteers on the ground for both disaster and blood services:

  • Stephen has volunteered with the Red Cross for 81 years, starting as a toddler helping his grandmother pass out coffee and donuts. In his adult years, he has taught numerous first aid and CPR classes and volunteered for disaster deployments that included numerous floods, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. His service experience now includes a total of 65 years driving a Red Cross emergency response vehicle, a distinction very few volunteers can match.
  • Shoba’s unique approach to volunteering comes from her big picture view of helping everyone involved in a difficult situation. For example, during Hurricane Sandy she made every effort to be kind to not only those personally affected, but also others helping the recovery effort. She focused on utility workers, who are often hard pressed for a friendly face when electricity or water is out. This is one of many instances that fit Shoba’s regular philosophy on what it means to give during a time of need.
  • Jasmine is a high school student in the Oregon Young Scholars Program. When the time came to complete her program’s volunteer service requirement, she chose the Red Cross Pacific Northwest Blood Services warehouse. Jasmine spent her year of service assembling the supply kits needed for collecting blood and processing donations. Like most teens, Jasmine has a busy life with school, family activities and friends. Yet, two years after completing her program’s requirement, she is still a regular volunteer. Every week, even during school breaks, you will find this young hero busy assembling kits. In all, Jasmine has donated some 176 hours of work to help keep the blood drives running smoothly.

This is just a snapshot of volunteer stories. To read more about Stephen, Shoba, Jasmine and many more volunteers across the country, head to the National Volunteer Week coverage on redcross.org.

Thank You, Volunteers, for Time Alone with My Thoughts

For the most part, I spend my days on the go with nary a free minute to stop and think, at least not about anything except what I’m doing at that moment and the very next task on my to-do list.

redcrossstickerYesterday my to-do list included donating blood. I donate blood because it saves lives, makes a difference in my community, and I physically can…but a little part of me looks forward to donating blood because it provides me with an opportunity to sit quietly by myself and just THINK. I watch people and listen to the conversations going on around me and let my mind wander…sometimes a little too far.

The bullet points below cover the many thoughts and questions that meandered through my head during my blood donation. (Keep in mind that the blood drive took place inside the student center at a large university, so the crowd around me consisted primarily of college students.)

  • Ah, this is nice…just me, myself, and I relaxing here on this bed.
  • Ouch! At least he hit my vein on his first try.
  • Ah, this is nice…just me, myself, and a needle relaxing here on this bed.
  • I love that the campus Red Cross Club has grown to the point where it can support blood drives on campus.
  • I really need to check in with my local chapter about retaking the Disaster Public Affairs class.
  • I wish I could rewind the clock and enjoy just one more day as a 21-year-old college student.
  • HOLD THE PHONE. Have denim shorts overalls come back in style?!
  • If it means having to wear denim shorts overalls, I think I’ll skip rewinding the clock and enjoying one more day as a college student, thankyouverymuch.
  • Why didn’t that boy – young man? I don’t know what to call college students these days – comb his hair before he left home this morning?! Note to self: inform Will (my seven-year-old son) that even when in college he MUST run a brush through his hair before walking out the door.
  • Aside from the Red Cross employees, I am without a doubt the oldest person in this building.
  • I should buy wrinkle cream on my way home.
  • I wonder what kind of juice and which snacks will be provided after I finish my donation? I hope they have Oreos. (They didn’t. Major bummer.)
  • I wish I had a grand piano in my living room. Though if I did, I’d have to get rid of my couch.
  • What is that amazing smell?! When my donation wraps up I’ll…

Red Cross Employee: “Ma’am, you’re almost done.”
Erin: “What? Oh. Already?”
Red Cross Employee: “Yep, you’re a quick donor.”

As I dragged myself back to reality, I glanced around the lounge and was struck by one final thought:

  • None of this – the blood drive, the lives saved, and yes, my short-lived but greatly appreciated time alone with my thoughts – would be possible without volunteers.

Thank you, American Red Cross volunteers, for all you do to make our communities healthier, safer places to live. Happy National Volunteer Week!

Your Role in Helping Refugees Worldwide

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 12.55.50 PM

This past weekend, over 500 students participated in a simulation that allowed them to have a taste of what life is like for millions of refugees worldwide. For six hours, they dealt with rebel troops interrogating them and confiscating possessions, building makeshift tents, and looking for medical and humanitarian aid from agencies in the area like the Red Cross and UNHCR.

Although 6 hours pales in comparison to the extended time that refugees are displaced from their homes in real life, the goal of the simulation was to give these youth volunteers a chance to experience what it feels like to have their agency taken away and to be forced into a situation over which they have very little control.

Did you know?

  • In 2012, the overall number of forcibly displaced people worldwide was 45.2 million.
  • There were 15.4 million refugees.
  • 28.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs).
  • Developing countries hosted over four fifths (80%) of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago.
  • In 2013, 46% of refugees were under 18 years old. This was in line with 2012 but higher than a few years ago. Refugee women and girls accounted for 48% of the refugee population.

The above information is from UNHCR. For more facts, click here.

Often, the hardest thing to know about global humanitarian issues is what you can do about it. As the students and participants in the Global Refugee Simulation & Conference learned, you can go very far by simply engaging those around you in conversation.

Make it a habit to ASK QUESTIONS, STAY INFORMED, and SHARE what you know.

All of these activities have an impact on how people connected to you perceive these issues and will demonstrate that these are all topics that deserve the attention of the community overall. Governments, prominent organizations, and other collectives all look in part to the issues that receive the most attention and time in public conversations to determine where they spend their money, time, and effort.

How do I get started?

We’re so glad you’re interested! There are a lot of great resources and people to connect with. Check out the links below and connect with the Red Cross, UNHCR, and other partners on social media as well.

On Twitter:

On Facebook:

Other Resources:

Coping with the Fort Hood Tragedy

This post was co-written written by Liz Fielden, Associate and Diane Manwill, LPC LMFT LCPC-S, Senior Associate, Mental Health for Services to the Armed Forces department at the National Headquarters in DC. 

In the wake of yesterday’s tragic event at Ft. Hood, Texas, our hearts go out to all members of the military community stationed there. The Red Cross has staff members and volunteers who are permanently stationed at Ft. Hood, and that team is continuing to provide the support and services Ft. Hood military families rely on from the Red Cross. The local Red Cross chapter was also immediately on the scene, opening a shelter for families who live on the installation and were unable go home until the all-clear. Before the shelter closed, the Red Cross provided a meal and emotional support. The chapter remains on standby and is in close communication with the military, ready to help.

Volunteers loading supplies last night for the shelter.
Photo credit: @HOTRedCross

Unfortunately, traumatic events such as a shooting can have a significant and widespread impact. For a community that is still healing from the Ft. Hood shooting less than five years ago, military families based on other installations, or even the general public who have become overwhelmed with the countless shootings reported by the media, here are some normal reactions that people may experience following an incident like yesterday:

  • Worry and anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble eating

Children may also struggle with their feelings and emotions when their sense of safety on the installation has been violated. They may also pick up on your distress and fear. Here are some common reactions found in children:

  • Clinginess
  • Difficulty sleeping and/or nightmares
  • Physical ailments

While each of these responses is normal, it is important to know what to look for in yourself and your child following traumatic events. However, there are things you can do to help begin the healing process. Below are some tips to help you and your children stay physically and mentally healthy:

  • Sleep and get enough rest
  • Eat healthy (even if you are not hungry)
  • Talk about it
  • Limit time spent watching the news
  • Maintain a routine
  • Exercise

For more information on how to help you and your family cope with this tragedy, here are some additional helpful mental health resources:

Coastal Towns Prep Tourists for Tsunami Threats

Editor’s note: Jenelle Eli traveled last week to coastal Ecuador, where the American Red Cross prepares communities for emergencies and disasters.  

Luis Lopez holds up a placement with tsunami evacuation routes

Familiar phrases every person hears before going on a trip:
Call me when you land.
Don’t walk by yourself at night.
Please just be careful.

Whether I’m traveling for work or hitting the road with friends, my parents never fail to utter these phrases — sometimes twice. And really, who can blame them? Even the most seasoned of travelers can find themselves in sticky situations when visiting unfamiliar towns and environments—especially when it comes to natural disasters.

Chile’s 8.2 earthquake and tsunami on Tuesday, which was followed by a 7.8 magnitude aftershock last night, is a reminder that travelers need to be aware of the local threats and surroundings. 

Wearing mosquito repellent in malaria-prone areas is a no-brainer, but preparing for the possibility of tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods while on vacation takes a bit more attention to detail. In tourist destinations like coastal Ecuador—where earthquakes and tsunamis threaten the tiny towns—visitors don’t need to stress. Local business owners and the Red Cross prep out-of-towners and residents alike for natural disasters and other emergencies that might occur on its paradise-like beaches.

Ecuador’s pristine coastline is dotted with palm-roofed shacks selling fresh seafood. There’s something else unique, too: colorful Red Cross billboards with local evacuation routes in case of tsunamis or floods. The billboards—aimed at both locals and tourists—are hard to miss. And they’re not the only way people educate themselves about natural disasters in the area. The Red Cross and USAID provide placemats to all the local seafood shacks, so kids can play games and learn the evacuation routes at the same time. Even the buses that transport tourists from the city show 4-minute Red Cross videos about staying safe at the beach.

The Red Cross teaches first aid, lifeguarding skills, and search-and-rescue to residents, so they can keep people safe every single day – natural disaster or not. Women in town proudly tell the story of a surfer whose life was saved by a teenager trained by the Red Cross. Middle-school kids show-off the first aid skills they learned from the Red Cross – expertise they put to good use in countless situations. Community volunteers demonstrate the early-warning systems that Red Cross helped to install: some towns use high-tech sirens when it’s time to evacuate; others have a horn that can be heard from a half mile away.

These safety measures are all part of a larger program to prepare coastal Ecuador for natural disasters. Red Cross efforts in beachside towns not only protect residents, but help boost their economy by ensuring that tourists are safe, as well. They’re the kind of safety precautions my parents would approve of… even if they still make me call them when my plane lands.