Driven by disaster

Last Feb. 27, Project: Prom Dress raised $4,000 to benefit the American Red Cross in Howard County. The next day, a fire swept through an apartment complex in Columbia and, just like that, the funds were completely spent on the four families displaced by the fire.

For about $1,000 a family, the Red Cross can provide immediate shelter, food, medicine, eyeglasses, clothing, even help with burying a pet that dies in a fire. But it’s not just about the material things -- a disaster, whether it’s a hurricane or a home fire, is traumatic and calls for well-trained, highly organized and unflinchingly compassionate people to help one get through it. That is the Red Cross.  

“I think people are always surprised about what they learn about the Red Cross,” says Jody Aud, board chairman for the organization’s Howard County chapter. “People think we’re there to put a blanket around their shoulders, and we’re really so much more.”

And that “so much more” is costly. In 2010, 55 Howard County families in 18 separate disasters needed the help of the Red Cross.

“For them, that’s their individual Hurricane Irene or Katrina,” says Doug Lent, communications director for the Red Cross’s Chesapeake region. This year has been especially tough on the Red Cross across the country, says Lent. Tornadoes, floods, fires, Hurricane Irene and, in Howard County, Tropical Storm Lee depleted bank accounts. Where there was a surplus in funds or volunteers in one state, they might have been sent to another in need. “There’s one Red Cross,” says Lent.

Each chapter is asked to raise $10,000 a year, but in recent years the Howard County chapter was lucky if it raised $1,000. No longer. In October, Friends of the Red Cross of Howard County was launched by Aud, who came on to the board last year to reinvigorate not only fundraising but awareness of the many ways the Red Cross is active. From swim lessons to CPR and first aid classes, from helping families of American servicemen and women reach their loved ones in an emergency to showing up at a fire with a van full of hot dogs, snacks and drinks, the Red Cross is a major player in a team of first responders.

“It’s a more aggressive fundraising approach than we’ve taken before,” says Lent.

The kickoff happy hour was hosted by local philanthropists Bernie and Connie Dancel, owners of Ascend One Corp. in Columbia, and included the well-connected and their friends to hear the real stories of the Red Cross. Those stories started with Bernie Dancel, whose family received help from the Red Cross in Hawaii when, as a young boy, his home was destroyed in a fire. They included that of Columbia resident Lori Fuchs whose house was severely damaged in a fire last year when a leaking battery in the security system ignited the contents of a closet and fire spread throughout the house. Then Theresa Smith, property manager of Reflections, an apartment community on Little Patuxent Parkway, recounted how the Red Cross brought comfort, food and other tangible support to eight families displaced in a multidwelling fire Oct. 1.

“They were so organized,” says Smith, “and they worked as a team with the Reflections team and the firefighters. They were so compassionate. You can tell there was genuine caring.”

The day was chilly with misting rain. The families huddled, in shock, in the Reflections’ clubhouse. One woman had a little Yorkie. Two other families weren’t so lucky, and their pets perished in the fire.

“It was such a whirlwind,” says Smith. She had ordered pizza for the families, not realizing that the Red Cross was on its way with its emergency van filled with food.

“Within an hour, the Red Cross volunteers arrived,” says Smith. “Everything I needed that we didn’t have enough of, they kept going back to the truck to get it.”

Seven volunteers divided the duties, from setting up semiprivate interviewing rooms to collect data on the families, feeding and consoling them, to standing with the incident commander outside as firefighters put out the blaze and assessed damage. One volunteer, Kevin Burr, was nicknamed “MacGyver” for his resourcefulness in fashioning a leash out of tape and a bungee cord so the Yorkie could be taken outside.

When it was safe, it was a Red Cross volunteer who helped retrieve the bodies of the two pets inside the damaged building and put them in special boxes to hand to the grieving families.

The complex’s owner, Associated Estates, and many residents came through with supplies and money to help the displaced families, but it was the Red Cross that provided the level of support needed in a disaster.

Even after the families had dispersed -- some to emergency shelter, others to vacant apartments offered by Associated Estates -- the volunteers stayed to talk through what happened with the Reflections team.

“They’re there to help talk you through what’s next,” says Lent, including, if necessary, providing caseworkers trained in dealing with mental health issues related to disasters to counsel victims with long-term need.

“Howard County is fiercely proud that if there’s an issue they roll up their sleeves and get it done,” says Aud. What she’s hoping for is a lot more rolled-up sleeves in the form of committed, passionate financial support for the Red Cross in Howard County.

Says Lent, “If we can raise those funds, we can be sure we can mobilize instantly wherever we’re needed.”

In addition to the Friends of the Red Cross in Howard County initiative, the nonprofit is collecting gently worn prom dresses for its second-annual Project: Prom Dress sale, on Feb. 26, 2012. Aud hopes to collect 1,000 dresses, which will in turn be sold for $25, $50 or $75 to girls looking for a more affordable way to attend prom.

For details about Project: Prom Dress, e-mail or find them on Facebook. For more information about Friends of the Red Cross in Howard County, contact Julie Mercer, director of advancement for the Chesapeake region, at 410-624-2032 or

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