At age 27, Justina Williams is living her dream. She supports sickle cell warriors across the Carolinas, by helping them work through health-related challenges. It’s work she’s been passionate about since she was a child navigating through life as a sickle cell warrior herself.
Diagnosed with sickle cell disease SS at birth, Justina was six-months old when she experienced her first sickle cell crises. She required her first emergency blood transfusion at age three. Blood transfusion is a common treatment for patients whose red blood cells, which are usually soft and round, sometimes harden and form a C-shape, like a sickle.
“Doctors said they could have lost me had I not gotten to the hospital and got that transfusion.”
That was the first of many blood transfusions to help relieve Justina of the pain she endures during a crises.
“I was one of the sickest babies at Duke University Hospital,” Justina recalls.
After that frightening incident, life got better for Justina. She remembers a childhood filled with joyful experiences. Her parents and doctors supported and encouraged her to do try things that made her happy, so she began dancing and cheerleading.
To manage her sickle cell disease today, doctors require that Justina receives monthly blood transfusions. But the blood she receives can only come from volunteer donors, and to reduce complications sickle cell patients rely on donated blood from individuals with a similar ethic background.
“For the African American community, it is very important that we do donate due to our genetic makeup. I think it’s very important that we do donate a lot of blood, during these times and in the future as well.”
To date, Justina estimates that she has received blood on more than 100 occasions.
“I’ve been doing very, very well on blood transfusions so far,” Justina says of her monthly treatments over the last year. Not only is she an advocate for sickle cell patients, but blood donors too. She continues to rally family and friends to donate blood in honor of patients who depend of lifesaving transfusions.
Want to become a Sickle Cell Fighter? Click here to find out how to help patients like Justina today!
“It’s a small thing that helps someone in a big way. It’s especially important right now,” stated Heather Vahdat, a Red Cross Board Member of the Central NC Chapter in Durham.
Inspired by her parents, Heather has been a long-time blood donor. Due to health concerns, her mother had received many blood transfusions over the years and her father routinely donated blood in his community. “Now, I have a family member with leukemia, and I would do anything to help him. While I may not be a match for him, I know I am a match for someone.” Heather recently decided to donate platelets and her second donation was made during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Before I donated, I thought ‘cancer does not quarantine.’ There are people fighting cancer and need platelets. I can help.”
Heather also serves as chair of the Biomed Committee with fellow board members, they strive to promote and influence successful blood drives and partners.
Red Cross Board Members like Heather play a critical role across Eastern NC. These volunteers serve as advocates in their communities, strategic advisors, and connectors to philanthropic resources. From recruiting volunteers and blood drive partners, connecting communities to resources, and meeting with donors, Board Members are connected to every part of our mission.
The 2019 NC State Fair is now in the history books and the American Red Cross First Aid stations are closed up till next year. The Red Cross has had a First Aid Station at the fair every year since 1928, which only the exception of a couple of years during WWII when the fair was not held. The stations are run by volunteers and staff of the Eastern North Carolina Region.
On my trip to the State Fair I had the honor of meeting some of the volunteers who work at the three Red Cross stations (also known as huts). Here is a short story about the why they volunteer.
The first of many volunteers I was privileged to meet is the Red Cross First Aid Station coordinator, Kathy Ellen, who believes in giving back to the Red Cross and the community. For over 20 years she has been the face of the Red Cross at the State Fair. She told me that at one time, the Red Cross had its own building, but people couldn’t find it easily. Some years ago, it was torn down and replaced with huts which were more visible and provided a more impactful public presence.
I also met Larry Cockrell, the First Aid station supervisor overseeing the volunteers. I learned he has an extensive history of volunteering with the Red Cross. Larry was from Nash County before moving to Raleigh. He has held many volunteer positions with the Rocky Mount/ Nash County chapter and enjoys returning to the State Fair every year because of the friendships and fellowship he has made. He shared how things have changed over the years, but the Red Cross continues to provide an important service.
The next volunteer I met was Larry Kohn, a local business owner who sells AED’s (Automated External Defibrillators). Larry provides AEDs for each of the Red Cross First Aid Stations (huts). He was first introduced to the Red Cross through his work and has volunteered at the fair ever since. Larry said it’s like a big family at the Red Cross and has made many friends. He encouraged everyone to come and learn about helping others.
One of my highlights was meeting the students from Richlands High School of Onslow County. I was very impressed with the reasons they shared for wanting to volunteer with the Red Cross at the NC State Fair.
Natalia Thompson was so happy to volunteer with the Red Cross. After high school, she hopes to someday enter the medical field and maybe the military. She looks forward to coming back to help again.
Carly Schaub also enjoyed volunteering at the State Fair. She said, “I am pursuing my dream by helping here today.” She’s learning more about helping others using skills from her Health Science class, including administering CPR and using an AED.
Eden Navaeh Hodge, a seventeen year old senior from Richlands High School, said “I always volunteer and love to help out. When I heard about volunteering with the Red Cross, I had to jump on it.” She hopes to volunteer more in college.
Then I met Maggie Adams, who was wearing a blue rain coat and the largest smile at the whole state fair. She said, “I am really passionate about the medical field and working in a hospital.” Maggie is a member of the high school HOSA (Health Occupational Student of America) and hopes to go to school to become a nurse.
During the NC State Fair, I met some great volunteers who said they had a great time helping at the Red Cross First Aid Station and could not wait to return next year.
This year, 56 Red Cross First Aid volunteers donated 824 hours of their time providing 872 services to fair attendees. They treated variety of health issues including blisters, insect stings, headaches, sprains, allergies, and many other ailments.
The Red Cross is grateful for volunteers and the volunteer groups who participated, including Richlands High School, Wake Early College Program, Capital Regional Advisory Committee (CapRAC), and nurses from WakeMed and Duke Raleigh Hospital.”
Kathleen Butler began her career with the American Red Cross in 1981. Before realizing how her journey would begin, Kathleen felt a strong pull toward helping others and relieving human suffering. During her 38 years with the Red Cross, she has served as a volunteer (ten years) and as an employee (28 years). Kathleen started her journey with the Disaster Relief Services after a college friend invited her to a Red Cross meeting back in 1981.
While at the Disaster Relief Service as a volunteer, Kathleen showed her ability to write disaster response plans. These plans would lead her to a full-time position in the Service to the Armed Forces branch of the Red Cross. This position would take her around the world. Kathleen has served on three continents, deployed six times with the Armed Forces, and responded to approximately ten national disasters.
Kathleen has served in Asia, Europe, and North America in times of peace and war, natural disasters, and a governmental transition following the fall of the Soviet Union. U.S. troops have benefited from Kathleen’s work in Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq (twice), and in Afghanistan. Kathleen has often reflected on her experiences and is proud of her years of service. A dedicated member of the Red Cross, Kathleen is compassionate and a problem solver. After serving with the Red Cross for 28 years, Kathleen decided it was time for a transition back to volunteering. Kathleen left Ramstein, Germany as the senior station manager, but not before picking up a cohort in service.
While in Germany, Kathleen picked up Bubba, an eighteen- month old black-haired poodle born in 2012. As Kathleen puts it, “It wasn’t long until Bubba started stealing the show.” Bubba started volunteering with Kathleen with pet visitations and he quickly started to rack up accolades. Bubba has been crowned champion in agility three times at canine performance events. Bubba is trained in both verbal and hand commands, winning three obedience titles. Bubba’s volunteer service was also recognized, having received the Iron Mike Award at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Bubba’s services are often recognized by the patients and staff, as well.
Kathleen Butler and Bubba
Kathleen Butler and Bubba participating in Service to the Armed Forces event
I was able to hear two amazing stories about this exceptional poodle. Recently Kathleen’s and Bubba’s service went above and beyond. Hurricane Dorian was projected to hit North Carolina and the Fort Bragg area. For safety concerns, Fort Bragg and Womack Army Medical Center were closed, except essential personnel. Luckily, the hurricane’s path changed, and Fort Bragg received a small amount of rain and wind. The service members and staff knew that Thursdays were Bubba’s and Kathleen’s day for visiting. And in true Red Cross fashion, Kathleen and Bubba arrived on the floors and received cheers and some tears.
The final story to share is that of a last man’s wish. A patient was being removed from life support and was unable to have his service dog present. Kathleen and Bubba were able to visit this patient, giving him his final wish. This patient passed away a few hours later. Kathleen further explained to me that Bubba’s presences truly benefited, patients, family members and service members receiving mental health care. After meeting both, I can see why.
Kathleen’s wishes are for her and Bubba’s to continue to serve for many more years. Their desire to relieve human suffering is genuinely remarkable. Kathleen and Bubba are true ambassadors to the Red Cross.
Story by Robert Baird | American Red Cross
Photo Credit: Robert Baird | American Red Cross
Scott Graham’s crew at the mid-Manhattan office of the Red Cross was experienced – the group typically handled relief for 8-10 incidents, such as fires, a day. Members, who included a retired New York City police officer and retired firefighters, were used to springing into action on short notice. But a plane crash into a river is no everyday incident, even for a veteran group.
On Jan. 15, 2009, with wintry temperatures around 20 degrees, Graham got a phone call about 3:30 p.m. from New York City Emergency Management with news that a US Airways jetliner had gone down in the Hudson River. Graham’s first thought: “We’re going to need blankets.”
“We had to mobilize our team, and we had to do it quickly,” Graham said.
Graham’s team was ready in minutes after the Airbus A320-214 went down off the 42nd Street ferry terminal, near the Red Cross office. Dozens of Red Crossers were on hand when ferries brought survivors to shore in mid-Manhattan, and a truckload of supplies arrived quickly. Across the river in New Jersey, the Red Cross was there for survivors taken to the other side.
“You’ve got to have the equipment in place, the right people and communication,” Graham said.
All 155 aboard Flight 1549, which was bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, survived, and the event has been dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
On Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, people gathered at The Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham to commemorate the 10th anniversary. The co-pilot of Flight 1549, Jeff Skiles, was a guest speaker, as well as Dave Sanderson, who was the last passenger off the sinking plane. Also there Thursday night was Graham, who shared his account of the how the Red Cross rapidly mobilized to make a difference.
The story of how the captain, Chesley Sullenberger, coolly brought the plane down after striking a flock of geese minutes after takeoff has been the subject of a movie – “Sully” – books and numerous articles in the news media. But little has been told of how the Red Cross sprang to action.
More than 200 Red Crossers responded immediately to help survivors keep warm in the freezing weather and to provide emotional support. But the number of community responders would grow to the thousands over the following days, as the response at the site continued for workers removing the plane from the Hudson.
Sanderson said the unsung heroes on the day of the crash were the ferry operators who plucked the wet survivors off the wings of the plane as it took on water – and the Red Cross workers.
“When I got to shore, there were three EMTs and one Red Cross guy with a blanket,” he said.
Red Cross workers provided other aid – such as helping survivors get in touch with loved ones – in the immediate aftermath and followed through to ensure that needs such as clothing were met.
“The sense of calm and relief was enormous,” Graham said. “Kindness was the most important thing.”
Sanderson noted that when he returned to Charlotte, he was greeted not only by his wife, but by Red Cross workers who had been supporting the entire family – that helped make him a believer in the Red Cross. He has gone on to become an active supporter of the Red Cross mission of alleviating suffering and helping those in emergencies.
“The American Red Cross does that every single moment of every single day – give hope,” Sanderson said.
Matilda Shanks has survived personal tragedies and two deadly hurricanes, but through it all, she has found strength in focusing on others in need.
Now, she wants to channel that passion for helping others as a volunteer for the Red Cross. After all, she says, during trying times, the Red Cross has been there for her.
After Hurricane Florence made landfall at Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14, eastern North Carolina was inundated with record flooding. Shanks, 45, of Chadbourn, N.C., in Cumberland County, went to Edgewood Elementary School, a Red Cross shelter nearby in Whitesville, when floodwaters rose around her home. But she put her time to good use helping other residents of the shelter.
“She stood out because she didn’t seem to let anything bother her,” said Betty Odiaka Baldwin, a Red Cross event-based volunteer who worked in the Edgewood Elementary shelter.
Shanks was there for other residents, listening and offering a shoulder to lean on.
“I smile and have a happy face every single day,” Shanks said. “Other people confide in me, talk to me.”
But she also threw herself into helping out at the shelter and did tasks that shelter volunteers did.
“She’s a very caring person,” Odiaka Baldwin said. “Really, you wouldn’t think she’s a resident in a shelter because she did so much.”
Shanks and Odiaka Baldwin had met two years earlier, at a Red Cross shelter at the same school, during Hurricane Matthew. But they bonded during the weeks they shared after Florence.
Shanks opened up to Odiaka Baldwin about her past. In addition to living through Matthew, Shanks had survived the loss of two daughters years earlier.
The tragedy that struck before dawn on Feb. 1, 1996, remains vivid for Shanks.
“I was awakened about 4 a.m. to the sound of something banging,” Shanks said. “I thought someone was trying to get in.”
It was the sound of neighbors desperately pounding on the door of Shanks’ burning house. She and her daughters had moved in only three days earlier, and she didn’t realize the smoke alarms did not have batteries.
“I tried to get my children,” she said. “There was so much smoke. I was burned over 50 percent of my body.”
She was flown to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill for treatment.
In addition to losing her daughters, who were 16 months and 4 years old, Shanks was suddenly homeless.
“I lost everything,” she said.
But the Red Cross was there for her, she said. Volunteers visited and made sure she had everything she needed.
“Red Cross was so awesome to me at that time,” she said. “I was so thankful and grateful. They blew my mind.”
Shanks also credits her faith for keeping her strong.
When Matthew struck in 2016, no one expected the hurricane to be so bad, and her neighborhood wasn’t evacuated. But as the severity of the storm became clear with the rise of floodwaters, Shanks and her daughter Jay’Brehon, now 18, moved upstairs to keep dry. Shanks made sure to take her portable radio, and she rode out the storm with praise music playing.
“God is going to be God. I trust him no matter what,” she said.
Flooding caused by Matthew devastated eastern North Carolina, and Shanks said it took five months for water damage to her home to be repaired before she could move back in.
But now she has been forced out again, this time by Florence. Shanks initially returned to the shelter at Edgewood, and is now in a hotel, unsure when repairs to her home will be complete.
For Shanks, whose creativity has led her to be a decorator, poet, musician and gift basket designer, the uncertainty has been trying.
“It took a toll on me,” she said.
But in the midst of difficulties, she has signed up as a Red Cross volunteer.
“I could never go through life forgetting the people who have been there for me,” Shanks said.
That includes Odiaka Baldwin, who regularly checks in on Shanks at the hotel.
“We just made a connection,” Odiaka Baldwin said. “I think it will be a lifetime connection.”
For most, retirement usually conjures visions of travels, hobbies and uninhibited leisure. For Reggie and Beverly Riddick, retirement presents an opportunity to give back.
In 2014, severe weather in North Carolina produced six tornados across the eastern portion of the state. One ripped the roof off of Reggie and Beverly’s mobile home in Elizabeth City, N.C. As the Riddicks surveyed the damage after the disaster, Red Cross volunteers met them in their suffering by offering water, temporary housing and connections to recovery resources.
Additionally, the Red Cross covered the cost of two nights in a hotel so Reggie and Beverly could develop a plan for future housing. The couple said they were most impressed with the way Red Cross volunteers followed up in the days and weeks after the tornado.
“That really left a warm spot in our hearts,” Reggie said.
The experience with the destructive tornado produced lasting influences on the Riddicks. The couple said it strengthened their faith in God and it established a spirit of gratitude toward the Red Cross.
About a year ago, the Red Cross re-entered the Riddicks’ lives. Reggie was reading the newspaper and saw information about a volunteer interest meeting.
“Put it on your calendar, we definitely want to attend,” Reggie said to his wife of 17 years.
When reflecting on that meeting, Beverly remembers feeling overwhelmed by the inviting attitudes of the volunteers. As a perfectionist, she appreciated that the volunteers emphasized mistakes are learning opportunities.
Now, the retired educators channel their spiritual passion into service with the Red Cross’s disaster spiritual care team and disaster action team.
“When we lost our home in that tornado, it was our spirituality that held everything together for us. It brought us closer together as a couple and it brought us closer to God,” Beverly said.
The Red Cross aims to meet the short and long-term spiritual needs of those affected by disasters through providing accompaniment, compassionate care, individual and communal prayer, and appropriate ritual. Spiritual care team volunteers also connect clients to resources according to their individual beliefs.
Professional or board-certified chaplains, disaster spiritual care providers with other voluntary organizations and endorsed leaders of local faith communities are eligible to submit applications to become spiritual care providers for the Red Cross. Reggie and Beverly are both ordained deacons at Riddick Grove Missionary Baptist Church (no name connection) in Belvidere, N.C.
“We wanted to find a way to give back because we are very spiritual people and God wants us to serve others,” Reggie said.
As spiritual care team leads, the Riddicks are working on compiling a list of local contacts who represent various religions to serve their diverse clientele. Reggie said he never wants differences of traditions to keep people from receiving the care they need especially in the aftermath of disasters.
“I think it’s very important for people to know that God is still with them, whatever God they do serve,” Reggie said.
When serving on their local disaster team, often responding to home fires, Reggie and Beverly comfort distraught residents by listening to their needs and offering encouraging sentiments. The Riddicks recognize that their experience with losing their home gives them the unique ability to empathize with clients. Reggie said people are much more attentive once they hear about their own history with disaster.
In the past year, the Riddicks have responded to a handful of home fires, served as shelter feeding leads during Hurricane Florence, and attended virtual training seminars and in-person training workshops. They haven’t been volunteers long, but they have each already accrued more than 100 volunteer hours.
“We just enjoy helping people, it’s a part of our nature,” Beverly said.
The Northeastern North Carolina Chapter is grateful Reggie and Beverly have chosen to dedicate part of their retirement to giving back to the organization that helped them on their path to recovery.
“We are thankful that the Lord has given us the commitment and desire to do it,” Reggie said.
Daryl Steinbraker saw the floodwaters rising and knew she had to get to work.
She had stayed in her River Landing community in Wallace as Hurricane Florence approached North Carolina in September because she knew she would be needed in her role as Red Cross government liaison and disaster team coordinator.
What she didn’t expect was that the floodwaters would claim her own home. When she and her husband built in 2006, the year she began volunteering for the Red Cross, they raised the house a foot above where the floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd had reached in 1999. After Eastern North Carolina took a double punch from Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, rivers rose to 500-year flood levels, according to federal data.
“We were assuming we’d never have a problem,” Steinbraker said.
When a mandatory evacuation order was issued for her area, she went to a friend’s. A couple of Coast Guard helicopters flew overhead, but she waved them off. But after the power went out and the waters kept rising, she knew she had to find a way out or risk being isolated.
A rescue boat was cruising by, with a Ski-Doo leading because the water was so high cars were underwater and difficult to see. The rescuers, a group from Marco Island, Florida, helped evacuate Steinbraker and her friend.
When the rescuers asked what Steinbraker did, she was a bit chagrined to tell them she worked in disaster relief.
“I’m so embarrassed because I’m the Red Cross lead for Duplin County,” she told them. “I asked if I could help.”
It turned out that the rescuers needed help, too — they didn’t know the area, and addresses on homes were submerged and impossible to read. So Steinbraker served as their navigator.
They cruised through the River Landing neighborhood, an area with a large number of senior citizens, checking on residents and bringing food. At the time, some still were adamant that they wouldn’t leave.
“I’m not sure anyone was able to ride it out all the way,” Steinbraker said.
About 240 houses in the development were flooded out, said Charles Farrior, the mayor of Wallace who has known Steinbraker for years.
At the shelters in Wallace, she had the advantage of knowing the community.
“One hundred percent of our shelter staff was from anywhere else,” she said.
When a shelter opened at the city’s Campbell Center, she used her local connections to get a full-sized refrigerator donated. She also helped smooth relations between the shelter and other programs running at the center.
“She knew the history of the place and provided continuity,” Farrior said. “She was phenomenal.”
Steinbraker also worked with Duplin County officials to deliver about 2,000 MREs to a neighboring county. She was a consistent point of contact for shelter staff and government officials.
Plus, she said, the fact she had been forced out of her home gave her “street cred” with residents at the shelters.
“I understood exactly how everyone was feeling,” she said.
Her home was underwater for days.
“My house had 27 inches on the first floor and 5 feet in the garage,” she said. Although she and her husband recently have completed the muck-out, it remains unlivable.
But Farrior says he never heard her mention her house even as she was working with the relief effort.
“She was all about helping folks in that shelter and folks in need,” he said.
That Steinbraker would use her time during the storm and after to take care of others comes as no surprise to James Jarvis, executive director of the Cape Fear Area Red Cross Chapter.
“Daryl has been such a great volunteer in Duplin — she always puts the needs of others first,” he said. “Even when she’s on an evacuation boat, she thinks of others.”
She remains humble about her effort.
“It was so much more of a gift to me, because your options are … you worry and you’re incredibly sad, or you get to go out and maybe do something that helps somebody else in it,” she said. “People think it’s selfless … but trust me, I got so much more out of it.”
In September 1989, Alice Klundt deployed on her first national disaster response assignment with the American Red Cross — a record-setting major hurricane.
The Montana native traveled to Puerto Rico to join relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, a fierce storm that made landfall as a major hurricane in both the Caribbean and the United States. Just a few weeks later, Alice united with the Red Cross in San Francisco to respond to the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake which injured thousands and claimed the lives of more than 60.
Nearly 30 years later, Alice reunited with her Red Cross family in Goldsboro, NC after Hurricane Florence produced catastrophic flooding across the Carolinas. During her Hurricane Florence deployment, Alice worked with a volunteer relations team, traveling across the affected region to ensure volunteers exemplified the core values of the Red Cross.
While her responsibilities are focused on volunteers, she embodies the mission of the Red Cross to alleviate suffering in all of her interactions. When stopping for directions at a convenience store in North Carolina, Alice’s badge drew attention from a patron and a cashier who both suffered home damage as a result of Florence. Alice connected each with the Red Cross.
“I was glad that we just happened to stop there for directions,” Alice said.
Alice is no stranger to North Carolina. Two years ago, she deployed as a member of the disaster response team for Hurricane Matthew. The Goldsboro Parks and Recreation’s Herman Park Center was home to the Red Cross’s headquarters during Hurricane Mattew and it opened its doors for the Red Cross again during Florence. Upon arriving in Goldsboro this September, Alice felt like she was at a family reunion because she recognized Red Cross volunteers and parks and recreation employees.
Before Alice started deploying to major disasters, she served as a Red Cross volunteer by responding to local home fires. It is from this time that she recalls one of her most precious memories. At the scene of a fire, a distraught homeowner came up to Alice and asked if she could hug her. Alice compassionately obliged and remembers the sooty handprints left on the white knit dress she happened to be wearing.
At 74 years old, Alice does not see herself hanging up her Red Cross boots anytime soon.
She adds, “I’m taking away more than I’m giving, it’s almost selfish.”
PHOTO:Alice Klundt shares Red Cross memories during her disaster relief deployment to Goldsboro, N.C. Photo by Sharon Penn/American Red Cross.
Louisa Rodriguez has been volunteering with the Red Cross for many years. Over three decades, to be exact.
Most recently, she’s been lending a hand in Puerto Rico for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and in North Carolina, for Hurricane Florence. The work can be difficult but knowing that she’s making a difference is what keeps Louisa coming back to the Red Cross year after year.
When you meet Louisa, it’s easy to understand why people open up to her. Her warm, welcoming personality combined with her ability to empathise puts people at ease. It’s this skill that allows her to reach out to people in their time of need, imparting information that is key to their recovery process.
“People talk to me without knowing me and it’s just—they open up to me,” Louisa said. “And they tell me things and I say ‘okay, this is what you have to do.’”
Louisa has been working with a Red Cross damage assessment team, checking in on people that may have sustained damage to their home due to Hurricane Florence. It wasn’t long ago that Louisa found herself in similar circumstances. She, too, was impacted by a hurricane. It gives her a unique perspective on what people might be going through.
“I say I understand. I understand what you’re going through because I was also a victim of a hurricane, and I know how it feels. I can tell you that because I’ve been there too. And I know how difficult it is,” Louisa said.
This volunteer will continue to come back as long as she can. The strength and resilience of people going through disasters is inspiring, and she said she’s honored to be a part of their recovery process.
“I have given them hope. And that’s the most important thing. That you leave them with hope,” Louisa said.