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Making a difference in disasters

Red Cross volunteer says responding is ‘right thing to do’

Submitted Photo American Red Cross volunteers Vickie Phippins of Minot, right, and Judi Leonard, Granville, perform a disaster assessment on hurricane-damaged property during their deployment to Louisiana in October.

Whether feeding displaced residents who lost their homes in a flood or assessing property damage following a hurricane, Vickie Phippins of Minot has never felt a time when her presence as an American Red Cross volunteer wasn’t making a difference.

“I just like helping people recover from disasters. That’s huge, and I feel it’s the right thing to do — that we should be helping others as we would want them to help us if we were in a disaster,” Phippins said.

Phippins has been a Red Cross volunteer for four years. During the 2011 flood in Minot, she and her family worked nonstop to help her daughter restore her flooded home. Phippins said she appreciated the Red Cross and other organizations being there to help, and she decided then that when she retired, she wanted to be part of that effort.

Phippins’ first deployment in 2017 took her to Florence, North Carolina, where she assisted in sheltering and feeding residents after a hurricane devastated the region about two weeks earlier.

“It was quite a bit like Minot down there. Although they experienced it from a hurricane, there was still a lot of flooding,” she said. From her experience in Minot, she could relate to the damage and the piles of rubble along the streets as people cleaned out.

Numerous shelters had been set up along the coast. During the two weeks she was there, Phippins saw the shelter population dwindle as people found places to go. As the sheltering needs changed, Phippins moved to different shelters in different cities. Red Cross staff established their personal quarters wherever there was room, which varied from a hotel to a classroom inside a high school that was being used as a client shelter.

“One of the things about being part of this is you get to meet a lot of interesting people, whether it’s fellow volunteers from all over or the clients,” Phippins said. “There were volunteers that had been 15 years at different places. Many of them had been on numerous deployments. Also on that deployment I met a girl from Fargo, and I ended up working with her quite a bit.”

Her second two-week deployment was in June 2018 to Missouri, following a flood and also a tornado that hit Jefferson City.

During her four days in Jefferson City, Phippins assisted with feeding displaced individuals, first at a church location and later in a shelter facility. In St. Louis, Phippins was on a team that took the emergency response vehicle to pick up supplies and deliver them to the Red Cross headquarters and shelters.

In September of this year, Phippins deployed to Alexandria, Louisiana, following Hurricane Laura. She served on a team assessing damaged homes to determine whether clients would be able to return and the amount of help they would need.

“When I first got out there, we weren’t in the worst areas, but I did have a day off and I volunteered to go down to Cameron, which was right on the coast. That town was totally demolished. So that was an eye opener,” Phippins said.

Another experience that sticks with her was visiting an apartment complex to do an assessment and finding an older man in a wheelchair, still living in his damaged apartment.

“He was probably the only one left in that one building, but he did not want to leave,” she said. “He had lived there for many years so he wasn’t planning on leaving. He was an interesting gentleman to talk to. It was such a nice visit with some of those people and finding out about their lives. It really makes it even more worthwhile to do what you are doing.”

A few weeks later, this past October, Phippins traveled back to Louisiana to respond following Hurricane Delta. She again served on a disaster assessment team, stationed at a Bible camp near Eunice, Louisiana. Much of their work was around Lake Charles, one of the hardest hit locales. Lake Charles was affected by both Hurricane Laura and Delta, creating challenges in assessing which damage came from Delta.

She drove over 3,000 miles in two weeks, assessing the damage to homes that were impacted by the hurricanes, according to the Red Cross.

“You meet some really great people. Everybody is so thankful for you, even people that weren’t affected,” she said. On her deployment in North Carolina, she and two other volunteers went to Walmart to pick up a few things late one evening. A woman in front of them in line noticed the Red Cross uniforms on the worn-out volunteers and paid their bill.

“Without hesitation. She was just so thankful that we were down there helping people. Anytime you would go to the store for something, people are just coming up to you and thanking you for being there. And they weren’t affected. But that is pretty neat — to see that they’re grateful that you’re helping someone else in their community,” Phippins said.

Phippins said she definitely will be signing up for further deployments.

“I always look at a deployment as an adventure,” she said. “It’s hard to explain but it gives you a sense of fulfillment and joy that you were able to make a difference like that in someone’s life.”

The opportunities with the Red Cross aren’t just in other states, though, she said. The organization needs people here at home, responding to help victims of fires and other local emergencies.

Since July, the Minnesota and Dakotas region has had over 200 in-person and virtual deployments supporting large-scale disasters around the region and across the country and more than 800 disasters this year in the region,

The American Red Cross provides extensive training to all volunteers. Every volunteer position within the Red Cross has its own unique training path, according to information from the organization. Prior to COVID 19, training classes were available as a blend of in-person and on-demand virtual training. Currently, all training has moved to a virtual/online training platform. Most courses are available “on-demand,” while others are taught live via webinar. Additionally, many of the trainings have been revised to adopt the organizations COVID 19 protocols, and individual chapters also host regular online meetings for volunteers.

The Red Cross reports it is closely monitoring COVID-19, evaluating training opportunities, volunteer assignments and staff positions to ensure that they can be done safely and remotely. Individual hotel rooms typically replace group shelters for disaster clients. Volunteer Disaster Responders are handling client intake over the phone, and they are trained to deliver Comfort Care Kits and/or monetary support to clients in a safe, contact-less manner.

Volunteers can support local efforts by doing a number of things at home, including being a Digital Advocate, working with technology or fundraising.

To become a volunteer visit RedCross.org and click “Volunteer” and enter your zip code to see available positions in the Minot area.

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