A candle changes the lives of a Durham family

pexels-photo-373988.jpegCottis Dickens, of Durham, spent her Tuesday afternoon just as any other – stopping by the grocery store, then to the bus stop to pick up her granddaughter.

But on this particular Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, the 78-year-old didn’t realize she’d forgotten to take her granddaughter to a scheduled appointment until they pulled into the driveway of their home.

“When she got out of the car she told me I forgot to take her to the dentist,” Cottis said. “I sure did. She was just going to be fitted for retainers because she had just lost them.”

The two brushed it off and planned to reschedule. Cottis unloaded groceries from the car, and her granddaughter went inside to drop off her things and visit with her grandpa.

Moments later, Cottis said her granddaughter bolted out of the house and said, “the house is on fire!”

The second-floor bedroom filled with smoke and flames, Cottis said. The fire started from a lit candle in a glass jar. She points out, the bedroom was directly above the living room where her husband happened to be sitting at the time.

“If I wouldn’t have forgotten to take her to the dentist, you see what could’ve happened…” Cottis trailed off.

But Cottis and her family weren’t alone during this disaster.

“I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to use the Red Cross,” she said. “But when I turned around, there they were. They were standing there [at my home]. They were very kind and polite and they told me they were there to help our family in any way they could.”

Cottis said Red Cross provided her family with direct financial assistance to help purchase a hotel room, food and other emergency needs, and gave her family comfort kits filled with hygiene necessities. In the days following the fire, they also checked in with the family to make sure they were doing ok.

“They were there when I needed them and I really do appreciate it,” Cottis said.

Cottis and her family will be out of their home for an estimated three months while repairs are made.

To others who may find themselves in a similar situation, Cottis offers this advice: “Be calm. You will get help. And you will get help from Red Cross.”

For information about home fire safety, visit www.redcross.org/homefires.


‘If it weren’t for the blood supply, we wouldn’t have our two little girls’

Genevieve Skinner appears to be a typical 15-year-old girl who keeps a calendar full of activities and enjoys spending time with family and friends. To her parents, Gary and Ann, she is very special. She is a miracle.

Ann suffers from a rare blood disorder called hypofibrinogenemia/Factor I deficiency. The disorder put her at high-risk during her pregnancy with Genevieve. Doctors worried she wouldn’t carry to term. But Ann and Gary took a chance at making their dream of having a family come true. They agreed to a treatment requiring Ann receive multiple infusions of cryoprecipitate each week through the duration of her pregnancy. Cryoprecipitate is one of several components of whole blood that can be transfused from plasma.


The treatment Ann received was a success. Thanks to Ann’s infusions, she was able to deliver a healthy baby girl. Nearly five years later, the Skinner family experienced another miracle when they welcomed their daughter Claire. Ann had more blood transfusions while carrying Claire.

Gary Skinner credits blood donors for helping bring his babies into the world. “If it weren’t for the blood supply, we wouldn’t have our two little girls.”

Now the Skinner family pays it forward by hosting blood drives at their church. Genevieve leads the charge to collect blood donations by recruiting donors and educating the congregation about the importance of blood donations.

“I enjoy leading. I always try to give back to the community, and there is pride in knowing that I was a part of it,” Genevieve said. It’s her goal for others to understand the importance of giving blood. “It’s amazing how people [are] impacted and helped. I feel like I should do what I can to help.”

The Skinner family hosts three blood drives at Wake Forest Presbyterian Church every year and have been doing so for more than a decade. In the last 10 years, the church has collected about 2,750 units of blood and hopes to continue this effort for years to come. The next drive will be held on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 4, from noon to 6 p.m.

Genevieve has a simple message for those who have considered giving blood but are afraid of needles: “Donating blood helps people more than it hurts you.”

Wake Forest



What’s it like to be a disaster team intern?

Greg Watts_2After graduating from high school, Gregory Watts chose to pursue a disaster services internship with the Red Cross of Eastern North Carolina. And in the fall, he became fully immersed in disaster relief operation work. The then 19-year-old deployed twice to Texas for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, and once to Puerto Rico to help assist victims of Hurricane Maria. When Gregory returned home, we spoke with him about his deployments. Here’s what we learned!

Q: First, why and how did you choose to work for the Red Cross in disaster relief?

A: I always enjoyed giving blood and platelets, so I called and inquired about an internship. I chose disaster relief because it sounded exciting. One deployment turned into three with the recent hurricane season!

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Gregory Watts speaks with a reporter before deploying to Puerto Rico.

Q: What were your assignments on deployments?

A: In Texas, I was delivering food and water to victims. In Puerto Rico, I was the warehouse distribution supervisor in charge of coordinating water, tarps, baby food, meals, toilet paper, etc. to be delivered appropriately.

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A shelter area in Texas. 

Q: What was most rewarding about deploying to help?

A: The best part was delivering supplies personally to people in Texas. It was incredible to be able to actually shake people’s hands and see their faces light up in the midst of everything going on. In both places [Texas and Puerto Rico] it was really great to see how in disaster all hidden agendas are stripped away for the good of the whole. The focus of the Red Cross is being there to help and it was amazing to be associated with such a worthy cause.

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Devastation in Texas following Hurricane Harvey.

Q: What was your greatest challenge?


A: Beside the overall stress of [being on a disaster relief operation], there were occasional conflicts between those who were deployed. Time and kindness resolved what was at first most difficult. Then we were faced with the other big challenges of power outages and insufficient resources at times. In Puerto Rico I learned so much about making quick decisions in order to be sure people got what they needed as quickly as possible. There’s not much time to think so you have to think fast and have a good plan. I learned it saved a lot of time to have my graphs, forms, and charts organized.

Q: Is there anything you wish you brought with you that you did not?

A: We were advised to bring five days worth of food and water which fortunately we didn’t need at the time. I really wish I had brought bug spray. The mosquitoes in Puerto Rico were bad! There was not enough bug spray.

Q: Any comic relief in the midst of disaster relief?

A: All I can say is as hard as we all tried to stay organized, there were days the truck would run out of gas then we would lose the keys – but it would be so ridiculous we would wind up laughing in the end. 

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Gregory Watts stands in front of what used to be a beach-side resort in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Story by Phoebe Fulkerson/American Red Cross

Photos courtesy of Gregory Watts

Make the right play on Super Bowl Sunday

Make the right play on Super Bowl Sunday. Give blood to help save lives!

Wake Forest Presbyterian Church will host a blood drive on game day, Feb. 4, from noon to 6 p.m. To make an appointment, visit www.redcrossblood.org and enter sponsor code: WFPCWake Forest


UNC-Chapel Hill student balances school with Red Cross disaster volunteer work

Just as the first week of classes for the 2017-18 school year began at UNC-Chapel Hill, Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast, leaving tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes.


UNC-Chapel Hill history and political science major Lars Knapp, 22, didn’t waste time volunteering to help those affected by the largest flooding event in U.S. history. And this wasn’t his first hurricane response. Lars signed up to become a Red Cross volunteer after Hurricane Matthew struck Eastern North Carolina in October 2016. Lars said he felt the need to help those suffering from Hurricane Harvey because he understood the need for support following a major disaster.

So on Aug. 25, 2017, Lars and another Red Cross volunteer drove a Red Cross emergency response vehicle from the Durham Red Cross office to Texas. Severe weather forced the two drivers to make an initial stop at a shelter in Livingston, Texas. It was not a Red Cross shelter, but the management there welcomed the guidance of Lars and his colleague.

Lars immediately put himself to use. In the shelter, there were several Spanish speakers and Lars was the only one who could translate. He used his bi-lingual skills to help a diabetic lady get her insulin, and another to get basic necessities for her children.

After spending four days in Livingston, Lars and his colleague made the drive to their planned destination of Houston, Texas. There, Lars helped again in a shelter. He met one shelter resident who had a job interview the day after the hurricane made landfall. With the opportunity in front of him, the man was now faced with a lack of transportation or proper clothing. Determined to help, Lars set up an Uber ride for transportation, and helped the man find proper attire. The man landed the job.

In Houston, Lars said he had never seen sheltering on such a large scale. He also witnessed kindness, and said there were so many people who wanted to volunteer. He said on one Saturday in his location, the Red Cross processed 600 event-based volunteers who were able to start helping immediately.

“You never know when a natural disaster is going to strike your family. Be there for other people’s family so someone will be there for yours,” Lars said.

In a shelter, Lars said Red Crossers provide services such as mental and physical health screenings, spiritual care, food, hygiene items, and any other necessities to help families on the road to recovery. Before leaving a shelter, many are assigned a case manager.

Lars said balancing volunteer work and school isn’t easy, but he values both his education and the practical skills he gains volunteering. He said if he could get any job out of college it would be with the Red Cross.

If you, like Lars, enjoy meeting people and want to give back, check out www.redcross.org/volunteer.

Photo: Lars Knapp reads to children at a shelter in Texas.

Story by Nichole Nettleton/American Red Cross


Camp Lejeune hosts Red Cross Totes of Hope drive


Red Cross volunteers spent time in late November at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, leading a Totes of Hope drive to benefit veterans.

Totes of Hope is a personal care kit drive in which items for homeless veterans are collected, assembled in a backpack or tote bag, and distributed through veteran’s hospitals or veterans outreach programs. Kit items include socks, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, etc. The care kits also include a personal note of thanks to veterans.

During the drive at Camp Lejeune, current military members, retired veterans and their family members gave graciously to make the day very successful, donating enough items to assemble 100 totes for distribution!

At the event, one Marine shared with his young son, “This is what we do to help those who need our help. It’s our way of paying [it] forward to our fellow comrades who are our brothers and sisters.”

Interested in hosting a Totes of Hope drive? Contact your local Red Cross for more information.



Photos courtesy of Terry Gentry.

A special thank you to George Blalock and Catherine Bruggeman of Marine Corps Exchange for hosting and providing display of items for purchase.



Helping People Help People: Neil and Donna Dorsey

When Donna Dorsey joined a Baltimore Red Cross nursing committee in 1975, she had no idea she would still be volunteering 42 years later.Howells-0291EE

Because of her passion for public health, the American Red Cross fit her interests and career as a nurse/educator/regulator perfectly. Before long, Donna was chairing the board of the Baltimore Chapter of the Red Cross.

In the 1980s, Donna suggested her husband Neil Dorsey get involved with the organization. He started in the Disaster Action Team (DAT) program, chairing it in Howard County, Maryland. After 9/11, Neil began work in disaster training. Neil has been involved in Red Cross activities that range from office administration to working in government operations, from Maryland to now North Carolina. Currently, he works in external relations as a Community Volunteer Leader and Preparedness Educator, and in disaster relief in the Emergency Operations Center as the Red Cross Government Operations lead in Pitt County.

In 1992, Donna Dorsey deployed to her first disaster: Hurricane Andrew. She recalls, “I’d just come home from a meeting in Chicago to receive a phone call saying I was needed in Florida. I said, ‘yes,’ packed, and left the next day.”

On that disaster, Donna was assigned as the supervisor in health services in a service center with four other nurses in South Florida. She recalls how challenging it was to be in an unfamiliar city with no street signs. “The smartest thing I did was bring maps with me,” she shared. “There were no GPS or cell phones back then.” In order to provide needed resources, she grabbed phone books to find pharmacies and other suppliers. “One family who had not evacuated had a disabled child. It was very difficult to provide for the little girl.”  But Donna and her team succeeded in finding ways to help the family stay in their home. Donna said she finds it incredibly rewarding to be able to meet the needs of people in distress while juggling the challenges of working in a fragmented environment.

“Times have changed quite a bit,” she said. Now, Donna works to share ways for people to volunteer at the Red Cross outside of disaster deployment. She stressed the importance of volunteering in all areas of disaster response, including logistics, managing materials, working virtually with families who have lost their homes, volunteer management, and working with technology. She also encouraged volunteer work in all other lines of service including Service to the Armed Forces and Blood Services.

“There is more than just disaster,” she said. “My philosophy is to start with your background and skills. There is a great need for volunteers in more areas than I have mentioned. We need you!”

Today, both Neil and Donna stay busy working in with Red Cross and disaster relief.  Donna has earned a number of Red Cross awards, including the Harriman Award and the International Florence Nightingale Medal. She serves as Director of the Nursing Network for American Red Cross and the Regional Co-Lead for Disaster Health Services.

Neil states, “I stay with the Red Cross because I like the other volunteers, the staff and the great work we do. Volunteering is a way of life for me.”

Donna smiles of their continuing hard work and said, “It keeps you young!”

Interested in volunteering like Neil and Donna? Visit www.redcross.org/volunteer and apply!

To specifically apply for a Disaster Action Team position, visit www.redcross.org/volunteer, and choose “disaster services” as your area of interest when prompted.

Thanks to Neil and Donna Dorsey for many years of dedicated service.

Story by Phoebe Fulkerson/American Red Cross. Photo courtesy of Neil Dorsey.