learning to give

I grew up with an A-plus volunteer for a mother. Mom began her long career fundraising for Public Broadcast as a volunteer, and then as a volunteer coordinator, before moving up the ladder in Development. Aside from Public Broadcast, she’s been fighting the good fight as long as I’ve known her–for women’s reproductive rights, for peace, and in support of reasonable voices in our government. Once I stopped worrying about whether she’d let me buy a miniskirt at the mall, I realized that my Mom was an amazing individual and that I wanted to serve the community as she always has. Through Mom, I volunteered to support our local PBS stations, generally in the television studio during membership drives, for many years.¬†But it’s taken me awhile to learn what I really have to give and how to do that–especially because I don’t belong to a synagogue or church, which I think is how many people discover the volunteer opportunities that light them up.

My father served as an Air Force flight surgeon during the Vietnam War, a fact that led to my being born on Warner Robins AFB in Perry, GA. His tour didn’t go terribly well for him, and military service did not feature prominently in our family. I was one of those pacifist, liberal arts kids who was both horrified and fascinated by American military culture. I’ve only had rare contact with those who serve. But, as a lasting effect of my father’s Vietnam experience, I’ve remained concerned about military families. When our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan began, and my own students started to consider military service, I decided to support those who serve. I do not support the war–any war. I don’t know another answer to our socio-political woes, but I feel strongly that armed conflict, by definition, isn’t constructive. But the fact remains that, until we find another way to manage our global affairs and abolish war, a small number of Americans will put their lives and the security of their families in danger every day in order to protect the majority of us (who are often at the mall, wondering if we are getting too old now for this season’s miniskirt).

I started supporting the troops by sending packages and letters to service members I “adopted.” I had an extraordinary correspondence with “my” first soldier, who was working transport in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In extremely polite language, Darrell explained that he was on his fourth deployment in seven years, had two young children at home–and he was from Georgia! That connection to my past gave us a point of conversation and the stories continued through several letters. Darrell loved Little Debbie snack cakes and 80s music and he hated camel spiders (which I Googled with horror). He hoped he’d be able to wind up his military career after this last, highly stressful deployment. His last letter to me was full of what my dad called “double-digit jitters”–just a few days from going home, he was worried about the crowded conditions and frayed nerves as his unit trained their replacements. He asked me to please keep supporting the troops because it made a huge difference to know their sacrifice was recognized.

I don’t know if he made it home alright. I have decided not to cyberstalk him. I think of him and his wife and children often.

After supporting several soldiers in this way (and one “airman” named Pam), I decided to get more involved locally. Unsure how to make this happen, I discussed it with my friend Johanna, who turns out to be an A-plus-PLUS volunteer! Ever practical, she said to me, “Come give blood. I do it every eight weeks.”

Gentle Reader, I learned that I have tiny veins and slow-moving sludge for blood. But I’m persisting! As my involvement as a blood donor unfolded, I discovered some things about the American Red Cross I hadn’t realized:

  • The Red Cross is not funded by the government, but it does have a Congressional mandate to support both civilians and members of the military in times of war or during natural disasters.
  • The Geneva Conventions were proposed by Henry Dunant in 1862 as a means to allow a neutral aid society to bring medical and humanitarian aid into war zones–thus, the Red Cross and a series of treaties in support of its goals were all created in Geneva.
  • Women (like American Red Cross proponent Clara Barton) have played significant roles in the development of the Red Cross. And Dr. Charles Drew, whose work on blood collection, storage and transfusion during World War II led to the development of the Red Cross blood bank program, was African American. This organization has embodied diversity from its very inception!

Most pertinent to my quest for “something to do,” I learned that part of the Red Cross’s job in supporting military families is to manage emergency communications. When a service member needs to know that a family member has died or been injured–or, happily, when a baby is born–their family calls the Red Cross to initiate the emergency message. A mostly-volunteer staff handles these communications, helping service members to stay connected to their families during these life-changing moments.

Ahh! Something I could do! So, what did my Mom say when I told her about the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces program?

“Yes, I used to do that, while your Dad was in Vietnam. I loved it when the babies were born and you got to pass that message along.”

I hadn’t known that, or I’d forgotten it! But here was another connection from past to future, waiting to be made. So I pursued my training to serve in the SAF as a volunteer caseworker.

Yesterday, I made my first phone call on an SAF case. It was a brief call to follow up on a mother’s request that her son come home to attend his father’s funeral. I talked to the mother. The message had gone through without a hitch and her son was already home. I expressed my condolences on the loss and asked if the Red Cross could do any more for her family at this time. She said no. She said thank you. I said goodbye.

For me, right now, part of my service will be a series of brief calls to say “hello” and “can we help you further” and “goodbye” to the families of those in the military. I didn’t realize that “service” could be so tiny it could fit into a few words.

Or that something so tiny as this could feel so important.

For more information on the Red Cross’s many volunteer opportunities, visit¬†http://www.redcross.org/en/volunteer .