"It's Good to Know the Red Cross is There"

Apr 11, 2014, 5:06 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

The American Red Cross visits RWJF. Northern New Jersey American Red Cross volunteers Hart Coven and Bob Hassmiller (photo by Jeff Meade)

The emergency response vehicle (ERV) fielded by the American Red Cross of Northern New Jersey is all gleaming white with shining chrome, flashing lights, diesel engine chugging away, the distinctive Red Cross logo emblazoned on its sides, larger than life.

The truck itself is about the size of a small delivery van, but even with a pair of comfortable padded seats, the inside looks roomy. But don't be fooled. Each of the red plastic insulated crates stacked like Lego bricks up toward the front of the truck can contain 50 hot meals. That’s a lot of mac and cheese. Up to 350 meals in all on a really busy night. There's enough coffee and juice to revive and hydrate exhausted firefighters for hours. Volunteers can give out a good many compact little "comfort kits," containing toiletries and other day-to-day necessities.

And of course, there are blankets—the big, warm white ones, also bearing the Red Cross symbol. The kind you see on local TV news, draped around the shoulders of folks driven from their  apartment complex by an overnight multi-alarm blaze.

There’s a wide-screen TV so people can stay tuned to the latest news and information. The truck even boasts WIFI. This is one tricked-out rig.

And then there are the assets you can't see, including the resources to help give desolated people—such as those displaced by Hurricane Sandy—a temporary place to stay while they sort things out, as well as clothes, and money for food.

You can imagine the relief that washes over the faces of those cold and weary people—people who have stood by helplessly and watched everything they owned go up in smoke—when that truck rolls up on the scene. No, the Red Cross Disaster Services volunteers who staff that shiny new vehicle can't make everything right. But they can and do make a very good start.

"It's hard not to believe in the mission of the Red Cross," says Hart Coven, a consultant who has volunteered on the truck for two years. "You cannot have a bad day when you see how much you help people."

The man who trained Coven is Bob Hassmiller, a Red Cross veteran who has responded to disasters both locally and nationally for 30-plus years, and husband of RWJF Senior Adviser for Nursing Susan Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN. He smiles when he recalls how he first became involved in the Red Cross. Let's just say Susan Hassmiller exerted a very strong influence.

"She would not give me a second date until I got a Red Cross certification—which I still carry in my wallet."

Bob Hassmiller is on call three or four nights a week. While other people might find it a terrible inconvenience to be roused from your slumber at 2 a.m., Hassmiller finds the experience incredibly gratifying. Often, he says, he comes face-to-face with families "who have lost everything. We can give them a room in a hotel, and enough food for a week."

Disasters hit the poor the hardest, he adds. "It's almost always the uninsured."

Susan Hassmiller herself is a longtime, dedicated Red Cross volunteer. How dedicated? In 2009, she received the Florence Nightingale Medal, the highest international honor given to a nurse by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

So here's how I, and a good many of my co-workers came to know much about the ERV. Volunteers from the North Jersey chapter visited the Foundation to help us celebrate National Public Health Week 2014. The week is over, but public health is a 24/7 proposition. You could say that, for us, every week is National Public Health Week.

We know a lot of public health professionals, and we know this as well: for virtually all of them, it is not so much a job as it is a calling.

And yet it's quite another thing to have Red Cross volunteers, right there on your doorstep, to be confronted with ocular proof of that dedication and passion. Here at the Foundation, we have a deep commitment to building a culture of health in the United States—and we know that all of those Red Cross volunteers are helping to get us there. Not just those who work in disaster services, but those who volunteer for every essential Red Cross mission, from blood services to health and safety training to braille translation. In Northern New Jersey alone, there are 3,000 Red Cross volunteers.

For Susan Hassmiller, being surrounded by her fellow Red Cross volunteers at the Foundation was visibly satisfying.

"It will be 35 years since I have been in the Red Cross," Hassmiller says. "They helped me find my parents after an earthquake in Mexico City. I have been indebted to them ever since." A lot has changed in the Red Cross over three and a half decades, she says, but one thing has remained the same. "It's neighbor helping neighbor. People just wouldn't know what to do without the Red Cross."

John Lumpkin, MD, MPH, senior vice president and director of targeted teams, has another perspective.

"I think public health is all about preventing bad things from happening. But from time to time, terrible things will happen. And it's good to know the Red Cross will be there."