True Relievers

News2-Red-CrossAs critics go after national group, local Red Cross volunteers carry on

When the ProPublica article “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes” went after the organization’s disaster relief efforts, the group’s national leadership went into damage-control mode.

The article, by Justin Elliott and Laura Sullivan, accused the American Red Cross of “broken promises,” “squandered donations,” and “dubious claims of success” in its Haiti campaign. Its clickbait-type headline was misleading, since even the authors don’t claim the group’s efforts in the country amounted to the building of only six homes. In fact, there was more speculation than hard data in the story, since the Red Cross never discloses where exactly all of its fundraising dollars go. Instead, Elliott and Sullivan attempted to paint a picture of systemic incompetence, an emphasis on publicity rather than substantive relief work, and even racism within the group’s Haitian campaign.

Following the article’s publication, the Red Cross issued a statement highlighting the group’s efforts to build hospitals, provide clean water and move people into makeshift tents—achievements also mentioned in the story. “When land was not available for new homes, the Red Cross provided a range of housing solutions including rental subsidies, repairs and retrofitting of existing structures, fulfilling our promise to ensure tens of thousands of Haitians are back in home,” according to the statement.

Two months later, Cynthia Shaw, Chief Communications Officer for the Red Cross, says the article has not slowed down donations or local community improvement efforts.

“I think a lot of people who really do know the Red Cross agree that it is not a fair assessment,” Shaw says. “I think a lot of our volunteers and donors are frustrated because the article is so egregious and biased.”

Certainly the group’s Santa Cruz volunteers appeared unfazed by the allegations on the morning of July 25, as they entered a home in Live Oak with a hallway about a foot wide. Shoes were piled neatly on top of one another to save space, and the volunteers were greeted by a small dog with its nails painted hot pink. Five people lived in the home—two shared a mattress, serving as a couch in the living room, and three others lived in rooms large enough to fit only their beds and piles of boxes. The family members, who asked that their names not be used, repeatedly expressed gratitude for the smoke alarms that the Red Cross volunteers installed.  

Patsy Gasca and Camilla Cervantes are Red Cross employees in charge of the Santa Cruz disaster program. They keep morale alive with a positive attitude, as well as donated coffee and donuts. Before the installations began that morning, Cervantes and Gasca led a group orientation armed with name tags, a whiteboard and the understanding of how to organize complete strangers.

In all, 48 homes were visited and 124 alarms were installed, one for each room in addition to the kitchen. Santa Cruz County just received notice that they are No. 1 in the country for smoke alarm installations, having installed more than 725 this year alone.

The local Red Cross manages to recruit professionals such as Gary Elliot, an ex-firefighter, and Dennis Alexander, an experienced Red Cross volunteer and a Seaside city council member.

Alexander juggles both roles, and says, “Even as a board member I make it a point to be a boots-on-the-ground team member.” Having volunteered after both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, Alexander describes his most touching experiences as simply hearing the sincerity in a thank you.

“We watched people come back to their homes destroyed, and we were there just providing the basics,” he says. “You could just tell how much they appreciated it.”

Alexander is also a member of the local disaster action team, an on-call group of volunteers that assist in major disasters, from home fires and wildfires to lost hikers. Alexander has been at two apartment fires, and just a few weeks ago took part in a local search-and-rescue of a hiker.

Shaw cites the current efforts of Red Cross volunteers in Lake County, where several dozen homes have been destroyed or damaged in a 5,000-acre fire, as an example of what the group’s infrastructure can accomplish.

“We have shelters open providing food, water, medicine, and mental health support. Today we are opening up a multi-agency client service center where families can work to recover from the loss of their homes,” Shaw says.

One of the more complicated parts of running the events for the Red Cross is explaining the frugality required by volunteers. During the installation event in Santa Cruz, disaster programs specialist Romina Cervantes says, “We are operating on a tight budget. We do not want to waste donor dollars.” The money for the alarms comes from the Red Cross National Fund, and everything needs to be logged to properly keep track of expenses.

Shaw says the Red Cross makes it a point to honor donor intent. “If it is written on the check where the donor wants the money to go, that’s where we’ll send it,” she says. “Otherwise it will go into the National Fund. We will ask people to make a general donation so that we can make sure we help where we are needed.”

AFTER THE DELUGE Red Cross relief delegates respond to the scene after a hurricane hit Haiti five years ago. PHOTO: AMERICAN RED CROSS

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