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It’s Still Raining in the Balkans, But Families Move Forward

This blog post was written by Wendy Brightman, a Red Cross volunteer who deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina to assist with cash distribution to families recovering from heavy flooding that occurred last spring. When she arrived a few weeks ago, it was still raining. September rains have continued to bring flooding to the same areas along the swollen rivers.

Mirad, his wife, and a Red Cross volunteerMirad Fsakovic and his family live in Brcko District—in a two-story home that has been in their family for three generations. As we entered the gate to their garden, the smell of sweet peppers came to us. Mirad was roasting several pounds of them on a grill made from an old washing machine drum. They purchased the peppers from a local farmer with some of the money provided by the Red Cross. We sat on benches near the grill as Mirad explained the night of the flood to us:

As the rain pounded, Mirad and his wife could see the water rising in the street, then into their garden and under the doors of their home. They moved to top floor—where their son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter live—and continued to watch the water rise. Selma, 5, awoke to the thunder, rain and water coming up to the second floor balcony. Her parents and grandparents sang songs to her through the night. Selma said that she wasn’t afraid, but had wished she could go swimming and boating in the water. She is only sad that she lost most of her toys — some had been washed away, others were destroyed by mold and mildew. In the morning, the water had risen about four feet inside the house. Over the following days, it began to recede, leaving behind mud.

Mirad said that the money they received from the Red Cross—about $1,600—has helped them clean out their house, repair the floor with new tiles, purchase wood and a heating stove for winter, and pay their bills on time. They are still using dehumidifiers to dry the walls but it is going slowly. They are keeping a portion of the Red Cross money for the future, when the walls can be plastered and painted.

As I was leaving, Selma presented me with a drawing she made of her hands. She said she wanted me to have it to say thank you to the Red Cross—and then whispered, “Next time will you bring toys?”

A child's drawing

The family told me about all the support they received from their family and their community. Neighbors have helped them clean up and repair their house. In the coming months Mirad—who has carpentry skills—will repay this kindness by helping his neighbors with their repairs. “We know each family very well. We have lived here since my grandmother’s time. Whenever there is a problem we help each other.” With this community support and some cash from the Red Cross, the family will reach their goal of a repaired house, ready for winter.

The American Red Cross has contributed $710,000 to help people in the Balkans recover from the floods. Learn more >> 

Congrats to the First “Centennial” Swimmers

This post was written by Connie Harvey, Director, Aquatics Centennial Initiatives.

As a water safety instructor, nothing makes my day more than seeing a child who used to be afraid of the water have the confidence to dive into the deep end and swim to the other side.

That’s why I jumped at the chance to lead the Red Cross Centennial Campaign, a 5-year effort to reduce the drowning rates in 50 selected communities across the nation where the rate exceeds the national average.

On Memorial Day weekend, we kicked off this campaign to celebrate 100 years of Red Cross involvement in swimming and water safety.  And in that short time, we’ve enrolled thousands of people – mostly children – in Learn-to-Swim classes in the initial markets: Brevard County (Florida); Orlando (Florida); Myrtle Beach (South Carolina); Los Angeles (California); New Orleans (Louisiana) and Birmingham (Alabama).

That’s thousands of people who normally would not have the opportunity to learn this important, lifesaving skill – as well as their  parents, who are getting educated about general water safety and how to respond to a water emergency.  All of this important work is being done through special programs and scholarships offered jointly by the Red Cross and our licensed training providers, such as local Parks and Recreation departments and YMCAs.

Summer might be over in some parts of the country, but for these new swimmers – and for the next 40 cities who will be part of the Centennial campaign in the coming months and years – the adventure is just beginning.

“The kids seem more excited about learning to swim now – seeing how they can get out of life jackets when they come to play at the pool as part of camp. The staff is definitely getting closer to the kids. It’s more personal. This year I know all the kids by name.”
- Amber Kazimor (Brevard County Parks and Recreation, FL)

“It would break my heart to see these kids come in as part of a camp and be scared to death in 3 feet of water. Now they come in and truly want to be in the water.”
- Kaitlyn Earnest, Instructor (Myrtle Beach, SC)

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“This is the fourth week of lessons, my child started out being afraid of the water and now she’s more comfortable, which will help her to learn to swim.  This helps us work towards being safe when we go to other pools or the waterpark.  It’s nice to have lessons so close to home.  In the future I’d like my whole family to learn to swim.”
- Magaly Sabino, Parent (Myrtle Beach, SC)

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“I like it because I want to swim in the deep end.”
- Raymond McCoy, new swimmer (Brevard County Parks and Recreation, FL)

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Fall Favorites in the New Season

It’s the first day of fall in 2014, and even if you’re sad the temperature is dropping, there are still plenty of reasons to celebrate. Here are some things we’re really looking forward to this season. Let us know if we forgot anything!

Visiting a local farm to pick pumpkins and apples.

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Picking out the perfect Halloween costume. And making time for the Sanderson sisters.

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Piles of colorful leaves (Clarence Barton really loves them).

Hot beverages – hot chocolate, warm apple cider, chai, that one drink from Starbucks that everyone loves – you name it!

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Eating yummy fall food, including apple cobbler, white chili and pumpkin flavored [fill in the blank with your favorite pumpkin treat].

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Weather that’s not too hot and not too cold.

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Less allergies with the season change. Although, we do have to stay vigilant in avoiding the flu.

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Football! (Hopefully those trainers on the sidelines have the Red Cross first aid app on hand.)MINIONS

Wearing fuzzy sweaters, boots, scarves, and warm, plaid shirts.

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Getting ready to hunker down for the winter. (Make sure your survival kit is also ready to go for the long winter months.)

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Lighting the fireplace. (Make sure you’ve checked Red Cross fire safety tips!)

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Making s’mores in a campfire (I love my marshmallows burnt to a crisp!)flaming marshmellow

Happy fall, everyone!

Nilda’s Story: Sickle Cell Awareness Month

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You might only think about car accidents or other horrific incidents when blood is used, but maintaining a diverse blood supply is important to help meet the needs of all hospital patients. This September, Sickle Cell Awareness Month helps remind individuals to roll up a sleeve and donate blood, keeping a supply available for those with sickle cell and many other needs.

Many patients who live with sickle cell disease face a lifetime of blood transfusions—patients like Nilda Navedo, who regularly count on the generosity of volunteer donors to help her fight the disease. Just this past July 4th weekend, Nilda received nine units of blood.

Nilda’s family is instrumental in keeping her outlook positive as they give back through blood donation at the Red Cross. Nilda’s sister, Elizabeth Collareta, donates blood as often as she can in honor of her sister.

“Helping my sister or anyone in need is always touching,” said Elizabeth. “If I had all the money in the world I would feed the hungry or buy clothing for the poor, but since I’m not rich, donating a pint of blood to help save lives makes me feel like a millionaire.”

Transfusions from blood donors of the same ethnic background are often most beneficial because they have less chance of causing complications for the recipient. For this reason, it is extremely important to increase the number of available blood donors from all ethnic groups.

For more information or to schedule an appointment to donate blood or platelets, call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or visit redcrossblood.org. You can also now download the free Red Cross Blood Donor App.

Living in the Unknown

Pville fire

I was devastated when I learned about the outbreak of the King Fire and the mind blowing increase in size. I grew up in Pollock Pines and Placerville, CA, so all of the areas that are burning are my childhood stomping grounds. Some of the shelters that housed local residents were located in local schools…schools that I attended.

My little brother and his family were on a “standby evacuation” list and diligently attending information meetings held by local government agencies to give updates on the fire…

Thinking about your friends, family, and places that you hold near and dear to your heart during a time like this can be overwhelmingly difficult. You feel helpless, so you keep watching the news reports, looking for online reports, and reading Facebook pages.

But sometimes the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and your affected family members is to take a step back. A few things that our Disaster Mental Health folks recommend include:

Limit your exposure to the sights and sounds of disaster, especially on television, the radio and in the newspapers.

Eat healthy. During times of stress, it is important that you maintain a balanced diet and drink plenty of water.

Get some rest. With so much to do, it may be difficult to have enough time to rest or get adequate sleep. Giving your body and mind a break can boost your ability to cope with the stress you may be experiencing.

Stay connected with family and friends. Giving and getting support is one of the most important things you can do. Try to do something as a family that you have all enjoyed in the past.

This is really hard – with the number of fires I’ve responded to during my Red Cross career – this is the one that hits closest to my heart. I want all of my friends and family to be safe, but I also recognize that I can drive myself into a useless frenzy if I overload myself with information.

And remember, regardless of whether you are in the affected disaster area or not, help is available to you.

To reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.

If you have friends or family who are in the affected are or are concerned about those in any of the active wildfire areas in California, Oregon, and Washington, share this information with them. You can always visit our website for additional tips on handling an emotional circumstance.

Initiation: The Bridge

This post was written by Melanie Pipkin Kozel, a member of the American Red Cross media team.   

After nearly three years with the American Red Cross, I have been sent on my first big deployment to the Philippines to document how the Red Cross is helping those affected by last year’s Typhoon Haiyan. As I prepared for this international trip, I got my shots, stocked up on bug spray and prepared for a week that would be far outside my normal office duties of scheduling and staffing national media interviews and managing communications projects.

Travel through the island of Leyte via Melanie’s 60-second GoPro video >>

Little did I know that my first day on the job in Tacloban would involve crossing The Bridge. I had read about The Bridge in previous reports: it was a precarious, one person across (maybe two if you turned sideways) wood and rope bridge that is the lifeline between the Barangay Balud (barangay means village in the Philippines) and the mainland. After a short, yet bumpy, car ride through lush tropical scenery, we arrived at the bridge to speak to the barangay council, which is basically the village’s leadership or the equivalent of a city council, about the importance of repairing and fortifying this bridge.

A man traverses a bridge into his village in the Philippines

We started to cross the bridge like typical Americans, taking selfies and photos that we could post to show off our adventure. Then things got real. The bridge is technically three panels of plywood across; however, only the middle one is fortified, so stepping to the right or left could mean potentially having your foot fall through — dangling above the quickly moving river below. And even that middle plank swayed as several people made their way across, and we soon realized that we needed to hold onto the shoulder height rope in order to maintain balance. We quickly put the cameras away to focus on our safety.

Once across the bridge, we learned just how vital this structure really is. People need to cross the bridge to get to the store. Sick kids and pregnant women have to traverse the bridge to seek medical care. I could only imagine crossing that bridge while having contractions!

During the typhoon, it was washed away by the rising river water, which cut off access to critical relief supplies like food and water. Men from the village had to climb across the bridge, holding onto what was left of the rope, in order to get to town. Red Cross teams helped restore the bridge so they could deliver tarps, shelter tools, and cash after the typhoon, but it was never a permanent fix. The Red Cross is now working with local partners to build a secure bridge and foundation, so that even a motorbike will be able to cross in and out of Balud far into the future.

As my informal initiation into life in the field, it was eye opening to cross The Bridge to not only see what the people in this village experienced during the storm, but to also see how far our staff and volunteers will go to reach those in need. And from here on out, I’ll make sure to always test my footing before even thinking about taking my next selfie.

To learn more about what the Red Cross is doing to help those affected by Typhoon Haiyan, please visit redcross.org/haiyan.

Thunder and Frightening

Schools across the country are back in session, and with the first weeks of class come first fire and severe weather drills. (Some scheduled, some not…during my kids’ first week of school a little kindergartener accidentally initiated a school-wide evacuation and all students received a quick but important lesson about when and when not to touch the fire alarm.)

While these drills are vital to the safety of our children and their teachers, they occasionally trigger fears children might not have otherwise experienced.

On Monday morning, one of my daughter’s best friends, Kate – an energetic, independent five-and-a-half year old who had bounded enthusiastically out the door every morning since the first day of school – suddenly wanted to stay home. With tears in her eyes, Kate begged to spend the day with her mama instead of in her classroom.

images-2After ruling out a variety of other reasons for the tears, Kate’s mom realized that Kate’s school had held a tornado drill the previous Friday. Kate, a notorious “weather worrier”, was scared about thunderstorms and tornados at school.

Kate is not alone: fear of severe weather affects many children at one time or another. If your child or a child you know suddenly seems fearful of tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes, either after an actual severe weather experience or after a school drill, here are a few suggestions to help them work through their fears.

Start early. Begin talking about severe weather before it strikes, when you’re calm and your children are calm.

Listen. Allow children to share their worries – whenever and however often they need to do so – and don’t brush off their fears. Answer their questions honestly but sensitively. Consider sharing (keeping in mind the children’s ages and maturity levels) your own fears, but always remind kids that even when you’re afraid you’ll do your best to keep them safe.

Educate. Read books and use internet resources to teach kids more about severe weather. How do “watches” and “warnings” differ? What conditions contribute to the formation of tornadoes? Which kinds of weather affect certain regions of the country? Knowledge is power, and most children feel more confident and less scared with a basic understanding of severe weather under their belts.

Be prepared. Talk about and practice your emergency preparedness plan. Let your children help you build or restock your emergency preparedness kit.

The fear of severe weather is completely normal – and almost to be expected – in children. After all, the unpredictable paths and inconsistent damage of storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes threaten children’s usual assumption of safety. But with a little intervention, adults can lessen these fears and pave the way for improved preparedness across the board.
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September is National Preparedness Month. Click here for information about American Red Cross preparedness apps, plans, and kits.

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Hope for Peace: The Missing in Colombia

Jordi Raich, ICRC in Columbia

Jordi Raich, ICRC in Colombia

Story by Viviana Cristian, National Capital Region, Disaster Response Leader and Casework Supervisor

As the daughter of Colombian immigrants, I was excited to have the opportunity to sit in on an interview with Jordi Raich, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Bogota, Colombia.  For the last three generations, Colombia has been involved in a conflict that has displaced over four million people. While many Colombians have sought asylum abroad, those who have stayed have risked kidnappings, recruitment into armed forces, and forced disappearances.

Raich talked in detail about ICRC Bogota’s programs, including their role in ensuring safe returns for the missing. When someone is kidnapped within the context of Colombia’s armed conflict, the ICRC often acts as a neutral intermediary, speaking with all sides in an effort to visit people who are being held, ensure their wellbeing, and, when possible, work towards facilitating their release and family reunification.

I couldn’t help but tear up when he recounted one situation when he was traveling via helicopter with men released from an armed group, some of whom had been captive for nearly 20 years. They couldn’t believe they were really being released.  When they finally reached the airport, the men broke down and burst into a song from the salsa group Niche, “Hagamos Lo Que Diga El Corazón” (Let’s Do what the Heart Says).  The song is about how the crisis is now over, the bad things are in the past, so let us move on and go with our heart’s desire.

Fortunately, hostages are not often held for that long anymore; it is now a question of weeks or a few months.  In preparation for reunification, both the families and the soon to be released are counseled and brought up to date on each other’s lives.  ICRC’s role does not end with seeing the family and former missing person reconnect.  There is follow up to see how families are adjusting and if there is still a need for Red Cross services.

Throughout the interview, Raich emphasized three important points.  First, he said the Colombian Restoring Family Links (RFL) program has improved through the use of technology. Second, he personally believes the current peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (more commonly known as FARC) and the government will end the conflict. Third, he stated once the country enters a post-conflict situation, the RFL program will grow even more.  The guerilla fighters will be demobilizing and those fighters, among them minors, will be trying to find and reunite with family members.

For many years, I have doubted the ability of the conflict parties to agree to peace. Yet by the end of the interview, Raich changed my skepticism of the peace talks to actual hope.  I thank him for that and I thank him and ICRC Bogota for all they have done to help my fellow Colombians.

During this year’s International Day of the Disappeared, it is important to recognize the work the ICRC and other global organizations do to help locate the missing and provide comfort for their families. For more information on the disappeared and the work being done to uncover their fate, please visit the ICRC’s website on the missing.

QUIZ: Do You Actually Know How to Swim?

For the past 100 years, we’ve been helping millions of kids, teens and adults learn how to swim and become lifeguards and instructors. This year, the American Red Cross launched a new national campaign to reduce the drowning rate by 50 percent in 50 cities over the next three to five years.

The new Red Cross drowning prevention campaign comes at a time when a new national survey shows that people believe they are better swimmers than they actually are. The survey, conducted for the Red Cross, found that while 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent of the self-described swimmers can perform all five of the basic skills that could save their life in the water.

What about you? Can YOU perform the five basic swimming skills? Take the quiz now!

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Join us as we champion water safety for the next 100 years. With programs based on the latest science, and new ways to learn in the water and online, you’ll be ready to get your feet wet.

Rip Currents – What Lies Beneath

By Dr. Peter G. Wernicki

As Hurricane Cristobal moves slowly up the Atlantic and Hurricane Marie tears through the Pacific, they are bringing high surf to vacation spots along both coasts and tempting surfers and adventurous swimmers to run headlong into the beckoning waves.

But it’s easy to forget that beneath those breakers there may be a danger that doesn’t advertise: deadly rip currents that can pull surfers and swimmers too far out to sea. Unfortunately, every year, even strong swimmers drown due to rip currents they either didn’t expect or didn’t respect.

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So before you head to the shore, remember safety tips from the American Red Cross:

  • Keep Clear. Swim at least 100 feet away from piers and jetties which often have permanent rip currents. A break or gap in waves, churned up sand and clusters of seaweed being pulled out to sea can also signal a rip current.
  • Stay Calm. If you are caught in a rip current, keep calm – you’ll think more clearly.
  • Don’t Fight It. Don’t try to swim against the current. Swim parallel to the shoreline until you are out of the current. Then swim at an angle away from the current toward the shore.
  • Ride It. If you can’t swim out of the current, float or calmly tread water. When you float out of the current, swim toward the shore.
  • Make Waves. If you are still unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself by waving an arm and yelling for help.
  • Help, Don’t Hinder. If you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard. If a lifeguard is not available, have someone call 9-1-1. Throw the victim something that floats – a lifejacket, cooler or an inflatable ball. Yell instructions on how to escape the current. Don’t try to swim out to help them — many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
  • Swim Smart. Remember to avoid stormy seas, always swim sober, never swim alone and swim only at a lifeguard-protected beaches. Even confident swimmers should be sure they have enough energy to swim back to shore.

Get current on rip currents and make your dash into the waves a safe one!

 

Dr. Wernicki is Chair of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council Subcouncil on Aquatics. The Council is a panel of nationally recognized experts drawn from a wide variety of scientific, medical, and academic disciplines. The Council guides the Red Cross on preparedness and emergency procedures and practices that align with the latest evidence-based scientific and medical knowledge.