Kathleen Treanor heard and felt the blast when a bomb rocked her office in Oklahoma City and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building a mile and a half away on April 19, 1995. Her first thought was, "Thank God, no one I love could be there."
Two hours later, Treanor learned that her in-laws, Luther and LaRue Treanor, had gone to the Social Security office in the Murrah building that morning and taken along her 4-year-old daughter, Ashley Eckles, whom they were babysitting.
The next day, while awaiting word of the fate of her family at an American Red Cross center, Treanor felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness and broke down, crying uncontrollably. A Red Cross volunteer was immediately there to put an arm around her shoulder. "She stayed with me offering words of comfort," recalls Treanor, 42, of Guthrie, Okla. (pop. 10,505). The following day it was confirmed that Ashley, Luther and LaRue had died in the explosion.
For several months, a Red Cross volunteer visited the Treanor family weekly to assist with anything needed, such as food, and paying for Ashley's funeral and the travel expenses of out-of-town relatives. "At every juncture the Red Cross was there," Treanor says.
After the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Treanor wanted to return the favor. She traveled to New York City as a Red Cross volunteer to comfort families whose relatives died in the twin towers. "I spent a week escorting families to Ground Zero, allowing them to say goodbye," she says.
It was a way to share empathy that Red Cross volunteers previously had shown her and her family. Since then, Treanor has volunteered with the local Red Cross chapter. "Because I'm no stranger to disaster, I feel compelled to provide leadership, to help people help each other," she says.
125 years of emergency relief
Providing help and hope in times of need is what the American Red Cross has been about since nurse Clara Barton founded the emergency relief organization on May 21, 1881. After seeing first-hand the good done for the war-wounded by the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War in Switzerland, Barton urged the United States to establish an American branch. In 1905, Congress granted the Red Cross a charter to relieve and prevent suffering during peacetime and wartime at home and abroad.
Today, the nonprofit, tax-exempt charity uses the money it collects to assist millions of people each year, from aiding victims of disasters to teaching safety-preparedness and lifesaving skills to processing nearly half the nation's blood supply.
"Every day, the American Red Cross helps people in emergencies . . . whether it's half a million disaster victims or one sick child who needs blood," says Kate Forbes, the organization's national chairperson of volunteers.
The Red Cross is supported solely by donations of time, money and blood. As the nation's largest humanitarian organization, it relies on its nearly 1 million volunteers to aid victims of disasters and to help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. "We depend on volunteers, who constitute 96 percent of our total workforce, to carry on our work," Forbes says.
Each year, Red Cross volunteers assist survivors of more than 70,000 disasters nationwide, of which 65,000 are house fires.
Returning a favor
Many Red Cross volunteers once received assistance themselves. The Red Cross came to the rescue of Roger Guyett, 46, of Manassas, Va. (pop. 37,615), when his home burned five years ago. "I lost everything," he says.
A month later, Guyett began volunteering to help others devastated by disaster. He provided assistance after the Pentagon bombing in Washington, D.C., in 2001, mudslides in West Virginia in 2002, four hurricanes in Florida in 2004, and in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last year.
For weeks after the storm, he and two other volunteers—Rachel Horvath, 20, of Fairfax, Va. (pop. 22,062), and Buddy Simon, 76, of Destrehan, La. (pop. 11,260)—manned a Red Cross vehicle cruising past toppled trees and trash-lined streets in southeastern Louisiana handing out hot meals and hope.
Twice a day the trio hefted large insulated coolers containing more than 200 meals, cases of bottled water, condiments and snacks into the van. As they traveled through Destrehan and New Sarpy, La., Horvath announced on the loudspeaker, "Hot meals from Red Cross."
Weary-worn disaster survivors, hot and sweaty from clearing their yards of broken tree limbs and storm debris, took a break from the 90-degree heat to accept a free meal and relate their traumatic stories.
"Red Cross provided food, clothing, and was very supportive," says Audrey Sudkamp of New Sarpy, La. (pop. 1,568), who had seven displaced people living in her home. "I appreciate it."
After handing out the hot meals, volunteers dispensed snacks, Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs) and cases of bottled water. "It was a good run," Guyett says with satisfaction. "I try to make it a little easier for them."
Making a difference
Like many recipients of Red Cross services, Verdelle Medlin, 79, was grateful for assistance when Hurricane Jeanne hit Florida in 2004. She was volunteering at a Red Cross shelter when she learned that her mobile home was destroyed by the storm. "The Red Cross paid my first and last month's rent on an apartment," says Medlin, who now lives in Sebring, Fla. (pop. 10,076).
Medlin is no novice to the goodwill of the Red Cross. She has 60 years of experience working with the organization as an employee and volunteer, and received her Red Cross water safety instructor certificate when she was 19. "I taught swimming, junior and senior lifesaving, and CPR classes until I was 50," says Medlin, who has volunteered with her local Red Cross chapter since then.
While people such as Medlin have devoted much of their lives to the Red Cross, a new generation is increasingly joining its ranks. In 2001, Josh Pelonio, now 18, of Sammamish, Wash. (pop. 34,269), took first-aid classes and became a member of a Red Cross ambulance team that provides minor medical care at community events such as fun runs, marathons, food fairs and cultural celebrations.
"All the skills to prepare me for this type of work I have gained through the Red Cross," says Pelonio, who as team leader orders supplies, recruits and schedules volunteers, and promotes the first-aid services to community event organizers.
"Every single person we treat, I've made a difference in their life that helped them out," he says. "That's what makes it worth my time."