March is Red Cross Month; Red Cross Disaster Response Is Critical
Tuesday, August 24, 2010 • 11:58am
March is Red Cross Month and Barbara Chestnut is the Director of the Colonial Crossroad Red Cross Chapter's Disaster Action Team, which has been given a real workout in Summit and surrounding areas within the past year since she began working in her new position. She comes from a family active in service to the public, including her father who was Director of Public Works in Camden, New Jersey, and her mother who was a social worker.
Ms. Chestnut's background is varied, including training in engineering and working in the corporate world, and most recently, prior to taking the lead in the Crossroad's Disaster Action Team, she had her own business as a life coach. "That, more than anything I had done prior helped me to fulfill my role as Director. We are first responders, but after the immediate emergency, it is my job to help the victims figure out what they need to do next."
That includes giving resource contacts of all sorts to needy victims so that their lives can be mended. The Red Cross Chapter will refer people to counseling services, aid agencies for practical needs, and connect those left homeless with housing. During the crisis, they have counselors on hand to support the victims and a nurse to ascertain the victims' immediate medical needs for which the Red Cross will provide funds. They offer comfort and the important human touch in disaster situations that leave most victims in a shocked state.
Ms. Chestnut noted that there have been a large number of fires since she began her role at the Red Cross over a year ago. In December and January alone, the Red Cross assisted at seven fires within the Chapter boundaries.
December 8, 2008: 26 Walnut Street - 37 left homeless
The Chapter headquarters at 695 Springfield Avenue brought approximately twenty-five homeless to their building and fed and housed them overnight when a fire at 26 Walnut Street in Summit on December 8, 2008, left 37 homeless. Then the group of homeless and another ten or so homeless who arrived after the fire, were moved to various religious institutions in the area. Two of those participating religious institutions were Calvary Episcopal Church and Temple Sinai.
Temple Sinai housed eleven homeless for three-and-a-half weeks from December 11, 2008 through December 30, 2008. Deborah Grossman, co-chair of the Temple's Hospitality for the Homeless program worked there daily to oversee all manner of daily needs for their guests. "I think the most significant story here is that I was able to get 100 volunteers to come on a regular basis and give their time. We needed cooks and cleaners and overnight volunteers. I set their volunteer time in two hour increments and I told them they would never be overloaded with volunteer time. It worked. They covered all the hours."
Chestnut agreed that managing the volunteers and referrals to necessary services and all that went with that, was a very big job. "We have a really wonderful community here in Summit. Hundreds of people poured out their donations of time, and clothing, as well as driving the homeless to various programs offered by a number of churches and for the holidays."
Overlook Family Services, Interweave, Junior League of Summit, the area's religious and the 97% of the Red Cross force that is made up of volunteer manpower, all went to work on the logistics of caring for 37 people of all ages. "But...," Barb was emphatic, "somebody has to contact and coordinate these many agencies and individuals or it wouldn't succeed. That 'somebody' is the Red Cross."
Imagine, for a moment, more than thirty people become homeless on a day when temperatures only reach the teens. Many are in shorts and barefoot; some will have no other clothes. They huddle in doorways of downtown Summit that night with no place to go. They scavenge for clothes, for food out of dumpsters, or they beg at restaurants and grocery stores. There is no organization to see to their needs, and those who might want to help as individuals would be understandably careful about how they reached out to them. Some get sick from exposure. It is a scene nobody in America wants to witness.
It would have happened that way unless the Red Cross had their organization in place, and had an effective disaster readiness program in place in conjunction with other first responders and after care programs. Because of the Red Cross, eleven of the homeless were cared for by Deborah Grossman and her hundred volunteers who fed and ministered to the daily needs of the homeless in their charge. A number of other homeless went to Calvary Episcopal Church.
Ms. Grossman's background includes being an executive secretary and being a former foster mother prior to adopting her son, now 22 years old, and a daughter, now 26 years old. Her daughter has special needs and Deborah has always stayed home to care for her.
Twenty-two years ago, when Ms. Grossman arrived in Summit from California with her husband, she joined the Newcomers Club run by the YMCA and subsequently chaired a Babysitters Coop that evolved from that meeting. "That was where I got some management experience," said Deborah. "That, and I loved caring for babies through the foster care program when I lived in California. I guess I'm just the neighborhood Mom who gives a hand when it's needed. But, I'm proudest of the 100 volunteers who helped during the housing crisis. It amazed me that that many people in our Temple were willing to help out on this single program."
The Colonial Crossroads Chapter of the Red Cross responded to six other fires during the two months of December and January, one of them an apartment building fire resulting in more residents becoming homeless. The Red Cross had to provide for them for a week. Five other residential fires also erupted, one of them leaving the house charred and uninhabitable.
In response to the fires that happened over the last year in our area, Barbara Chestnut has a word of advice: "If you are a renter, get renter's insurance. It's very cheap, and it will make a difference between recovering from a fire down the road, or never really recovering. A fire can happen to anybody."
Deborah Grossman will be honored, along with her hundred volunteers, at a service at Temple Sinai to be held on April 24th.
Ms. Chestnut extended an invitation to new volunteers, or to those who would like to attend one of the many educational programs Red Cross offers. Go to their site: www.ccnjredcross.org for further information. Donations are always welcome.