Red Cross Volunteer Spotlight: Larry Messinger

Larry Messinger HFPC portrait

By Tiffany Koenig

Sometimes unforeseen obstacles can derail an otherwise well-planned disaster relief effort. Fortunately at the Red Cross, we have many volunteers who view such challenges as opportunities to learn and build a stronger organization. One of those special individuals is Larry Messinger, a dedicated Spokane volunteer who was on the scene of a powerful windstorm that hit the Spokane area in July 2014.  


Larry Messinger HFPC vol

Larry Messinger has covered a lot of ground in his years as a Red Cross volunteer. Most recently, he’s been installing smoke alarms for the Home Fire Prevention Campaign

During the storm, winds of 50 to 70 miles per hour felled large trees, damaging homes and cutting off power to residents. At the Riverside Mobile Home Park north of Spokane, 20 homes were heavily damaged and 35 families displaced. A Red Cross shelter set up in a school across the street was ready to take people in, but residents were reluctant to use it. One major reason was that they didn’t want to leave their pets behind. “We saw that same issue at another shelter we opened in our county for a wildfire. I volunteered to jump in on that,” Larry recalls.

Taking care of pets is becoming an important part of disaster relief, and today Larry’s volunteer work includes establishing partnerships for the emergency sheltering of pets and animals in Spokane and surrounding communities. “People who have had a house fire are devastated,” he says. “They’ve lost everything they own, but they’re more concerned about what they still have, like their cats and dogs.”  

The Power of Partnerships for Pets

As Larry explains, community partnership development is essential to filling needs like this one. “We can’t do everything on our own. We depend a lot on other agencies, nonprofit and for-profit both, to help us out during disasters.” In his role as a leader of this effort, Larry works to identify organizations that can fill certain gaps with assistance that the Red Cross is called upon to provide.

Long-term planning is in Larry’s blood. Before retiring to Spokane in 2007, he worked in the mining industry for 34 years in St. Louis, Wyoming, Texas, and South America as an operations project manager and consultant. Volunteering for the local Red Cross chapter was an opportunity to put his skills to good use in retirement and get to know the Spokane community. For Larry, meeting new people he wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise is the best part of volunteering. “I’ve met a lot of people who, because of a combination of circumstances, weren’t able to help themselves when they had a mishap like a fire. Meeting people and getting to all corners of the community has been very rewarding to me.”

In addition to his work in community partnerships, Larry serves as a Disaster Action Team (DAT) duty officer and captain, caseworker for the Services to Armed Forces Emergency Communications program, and Restoring Family Links Services (RSF) caseworker for his chapter. Through RSF, he helps reunite family members around the world that have been separated due to war or natural disasters. When he’s not volunteering, Larry enjoys woodworking and running, and recently completed a 14k race. He and his wife, Sherry, also spend time maintaining their large yard and visiting their four grandchildren in Texas and Illinois.        

A Day’s Mission: Making 100 Homes and Families Safer

The Home Fire Preparedness Campaign: Armed with free smoke alarms, the team of Red Cross volunteers mobilize to make 100 vulnerable homes safer.

The Home Fire Preparedness Campaign: Armed with free smoke alarms, the team of Red Cross volunteers mobilize to make 100 vulnerable homes safer.

By Courtney Valenzuela It’s mid-Saturday morning in Parkland and a team of Red Cross volunteers join the Central Pierce Fire department as they make their way through two area mobile home parks. The teams are going door to door testing and installing smoke detectors, free of charge to residents. This event is part of the Red Cross Home Fire Preparedness Campaign, a five-year commitment aimed to reduce home fire-related fatalities and injuries by 25 percent. According to the staff at Central Pierce Fire and Rescue, mobile homes experienced the second highest number of house fires fatalities in Pierce County last year.  And for many of these homes fire alarms were deactivated or absent at the time of disaster, making a high-risk community even more vulnerable. “Older mobile homes are smaller than today’s models. They have less egress, smaller windows–many of which do not open–and are made from materials that can burn rapidly, allowing a small fire to travel quickly and consume the materials stored within,” explained Matt Holm, community service coordinator and retired assistant fire chief for the department. “In many cases the occupants did not have significant time to evacuate, or were never alerted to the fire because of the lack of smoke alarms, or properly working smoke alarms.” In fact, more than 60 percent of these fatalities occur in homes without working smoke detectors, a number which both teams seek to reduce. The mission for today is to ensure that members of the community are equipped with a working smoke alarm, and the knowledge of what to do if they hear it go off. The visit served as a good refresher course for residents of all ages. As the adults received instructions on how to test their new smoke alarms, children were given a white board and asked to draw two emergency routes out of their house.  Many families saw this as an opportunity to talk through some of the more challenging topics of fire safety.  Although a small percentage of residents had personally known anyone to experience fire loss, it did not hinder the enthusiasm. Ty Webb, a homeowner in the neighborhood, welcomed welcome the team in as soon as they stepped foot on his front porch. “I said, ‘Definitely, oh yes,’ I believe everybody should have a couple of smoke alarms . It does save your life.”  In addition to the new alarms, residents were given advice on a range of fire hazards including  smoking inside and what to do if you think you smell smoke “Our goal has always been to reduce fire fatalities and help educate citizens on how to prevent and get out safely in the event of a fire,” explained Holm. “This program has helped to do just that.” At the end of the day more than 100 homes had been visited and presented with information on how to better prepare for a house fire. For more information on the Red Cross Home Fire Campaign please visit RedCross.org

Hoping for the Best, Preparing for the Worst: The 2015 Wildfire Season

American Red Cross  - Carleton Complex Fire DR 416-15 EWF July 2014 Photo by Jacqueline M. Koch/American Red Cross

Reaching out to fire-impacted communities: A Red Cross volunteer hands out flyers illustrating preparedness measures for wildfire season.

 by Megan Snow, executive director
Red Cross, Greater Inland Northwest

In the Northwest, fire season usually flares in earnest in July. Not so for the summer of 2015, gauging by the wildfires that have erupted across the state. By the end of June, we’ve endured a steady onslaught of raging blazes, destroying homes and forcing people to find safety. For regional Red Cross volunteers, from Central Washington to the Idaho Panhandle, the pace has been hectic. At the start of July, we had opened eight shelters in seven days.

It’s hard to think of what will come next. What I’ve witnessed over the last two weeks brings just one thing to mind: the importance of being prepared. We can’t predict what the wildfires will do, but we can take measures to reduce risk by having a plan and staying alert and informed.

The key operating word is preparedness. I’ve worked alongside volunteers who have mobilized to open shelters and put contingency plans in place as the fires razed homes, neighborhoods and business districts. At times, these volunteers make it all seem effortless. They are there, they are ready to assist people when it’s needed most—to offer food, shelter and comfort. Preparedness, I’ve learned from experience, goes a long way. To provide immediate help as a disaster unfolds requires ongoing readiness. This means putting resources in place, ensuring our volunteers are trained for unexpected scenarios, and securing the equipment and partners needed to bring a relief operation to life, wherever it may be needed.

Preparedness is at the heart of the commitment that the Red Cross and its dedicated corps of trained volunteers have made to the communities they live in, in the Northwest region and across the country. It’s one they can keep with the ongoing generosity of supporters. We have a long summer ahead, and sadly, we can expect wildfires to continue to play a volatile and destructive role. We’re hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and working together to make it through another tough wildfire season.

2014 Washington Wildfires – One Year Update

Red Cross volunteer Pascal Chevalier

Red Cross volunteer Pascal Chevalier

The summer of 2014 brought the most destructive wildfires in Washington state history. The firestorm that swept through Central Washington consumed 363,000 acres and hundreds of homes and decimated infrastructure across the region, creating unprecedented challenges.

One year on, the summer of 2014 is one few will forget. Yet this year, the region is preparing for worse. Wildfires have already ignited in Central Washington, forcing thousands of Wenatchee residents to flee their homes.

“Experience has shown us that we cannot overstate the value of a robust network of highly trained volunteers and the resources to be on the ground right away,” said Amanda Appel, Red Cross disaster program specialist.

In response to last year’s fire disaster, the Red Cross:

  • opened 18 shelters
  • operated 12 fixed feeding sites and served nearly 45,000 meals and snacks
  • established 5 bulk distribution sites to distribute more than 6,000 items
  • provided casework assistance to 680 individuals
  • provided health and emotional support contacts to more than 2,000 people impacted residents.

Looking back and looking forward

“Our community was hard-hit last year and they will be even more vulnerable and have fewer resources to cope this year,” Appel explained. “Therefore we need to be persistent and be creative and flexible to ensure the help is meaningful.”

A corps of trained volunteers helps to strengthen communities, making them more resilient and prepared should an emergency strike. Volunteers come with diverse skills and backgrounds. Last year, the fire disaster prompted Pascal Chevalier, born and raised in the war-torn country of Lebanon, to join.

“I’ve been a direct recipient of Red Cross assistance for all my life, so this is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Chevalier said. “When I walked in, I said, ‘I’m here, put me to work.’” He was trained immediately and assigned to support shelter operations.

Last year’s firestorms hit close to home for other Red Cross volunteers, such as Kay MacCready. “I’d worked on a couple of national disasters in the past, but it’s different when it’s in your own backyard,” said MacCready of Winthrop, a small town heavily impacted by the fires and repeated evacuation orders.

The wildfire disaster came uncomfortably close to home, MacCready admits, “But I couldn’t quit. I was working alongside volunteers who were kind and giving and I really learned a lot from them.”

Lessons in Preparedness, Giving Back

Guillermo CarvajalBy Nicole Ginley-Hidinger

Each week, the Girls’ and Boys’ Achievers Academy students at Northgate Elementary hear from speakers about a variety of topics. On this day, representatives from the American Red Cross were on hand to teach emergency preparedness skills. To introduce the Red Cross presenters, Instructor Guillermo Carvajal, a Family Support Worker with the Seattle School District, begins by sharing a story about how the Red Cross helped him after a house fire.

“We lived in a very old house and under the stairs leading to the main floor, a fire had started,” Carvajal said. “We didn’t know how … we lost everything. It moved fast. The Red Cross called me and asked if I needed some help.”

For nine years, he held onto the Target t-shirts he received through the Red Cross for sentimental reasons.

“I was able to get blankets and bedding and I was able to get beds later when I secured another apartment,” he said. “[The Red Cross] made me feel comfortable and safe … that there were people behind me, and the resources they provided were enough to make me feel comfortable. I have never forgotten that.”

Nearly 15 years later, he invited the Red Cross Youth Preparedness instructors to teach Basic First Aid to his students.

“I wanted to at least give them an idea what should be done and who to talk to in the case of an emergency,” he said. “Kids need to have the tools so that when a situation appears in front of them, they don’t panic. They think, ‘oh yeah, I can handle that. I remember this piece.’”

The Basic First Aid class teaches kids what to do to help someone who is choking, how to wrap a bandage, and how to tie a sling. It is one of five classes the Red Cross youth department teaches to prepare youth for natural disasters and emergencies.

“The Red Cross is hugely important,” he added. “If you get a cut, what are you going to do? If you wipe out on your bike, what are you going to do? Who do you call? I think it’s something we should have instituted in all the schools to start getting the basic idea of what it is to help somebody.”

After his experience with the Red Cross, Carvajal connects his friends and the families he supports with their services.

“I tell people I went to the Red Cross,” he says. “I was involved in a fire and here’s what happened. I want you to feel comfortable asking for first aid classes or earthquake classes or going there and purchasing something.”

For more information on Red Cross Youth Preparedness, visit redcross.org.

Volunteer Spotlight: Ron Conlin

Ron ConlinBy Tiffany Koenig,
Red Cross Volunteer

“Being involved in the community is second nature to me,” says Red Cross volunteer Ron Conlin. And it’s no wonder. Ron has been serving communities for
more than forty years, starting as a police officer patrolling the projects in New Orleans—“some of the toughest in the world at the time.”

Ron joined the police department after getting off active duty in the Armed Forces and worked his way up to homicide detective. He first got involved with the Red Cross in 1985 as chairman of the emergency services group for New Orleans. Years later, after retiring from law enforcement and starting his own national consulting firm in Washington state, Ron reconnected with the Red Cross to help his Whidbey Island community.

Ron now serves as the Washington state coordinator of Life, Safety, and Asset Protection (LSAP), responsible for ensuring the safety and security of Red Cross staff, volunteers, and clients and protecting Red Cross assets. He is also the Northwest Washington Deputy Disaster Cycle Services Manager and Government Liaison for the area and serves on the South Whidbey unit of the DAT team, which responds to everything from fires to floods to windstorms across the Islands area.

“DAT teams are usually the first ones to respond to any disaster before the rest of the volunteer force is called into action,” he says. On any given day he might be assisting disaster clients, providing canteen services for fire or law enforcement agencies at a site, preparing shelters, or ensuring that his unit has strategic locations for supplies and equipment. “Our whole chapter works together as a team to get things done as needed. The community depends on it.”

So what’s it like performing his role on Whidbey Island? “There are different cultural nuances about working on all the islands,” Ron says. There are also logistical challenges that can make disaster relief difficult. “The mainland has more resources. If the islands are cut off by a major disaster compromising a bridge or the ferry system, then those areas need to be more prepared until support from the rest of the state can come in. The lack of transportation avenues is an area of concern.”

One of Ron’s most memorable deployments was the two months he spent in New York after Superstorm Sandy. “That was memorable as far as the scope and complexity of such a large-scale disaster. It was so vast because of the concentration of the population and extensive damage throughout a geographic area.” As part of LSAP, Ron helped ensure the safety of mobile feeding sites, staging areas, staff facilities, and hundreds of shelters set up throughout the area. “It was a different way than the Red Cross normally operates,” he explains. “It’s normally available for temporary and immediate assistance after a disaster, but this has been a long-haul effort.” In fact, the recovery effort is still going on after all this time.

When he’s not volunteering with the Red Cross, Ron teaches for the FBI Academy Alumni Association (founding president), serves as president of the Crime Stoppers Association of Washington, is heavily involved with the American Legion, and is recognized nationally as a crime prevention instructor. In his free time he enjoys fishing, firearms practice, and maintaining his Whidbey Island property overlooking Possession Sound, home to deer, eagles, owls, and raccoons—“like a mini-zoo.”

“Whidbey still has that quaint island feeling,” he says. “It’s a getaway from madness of the mainland.”

Volunteer Spotlight: Supriya Janarthanan

SupriyaBy Tiffany Koenig

As a volunteer with the Language Bank in King County, Supriya Janarthanan brings a rare skill to her role: she speaks the South Indian languages Tamil and Telugu. Originally from Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu in India, Supriya enjoys volunteering with the Red Cross because it offers an opportunity to meet different people and learn about diverse cultures while also making a difference in the community.

So what does the Language Bank do? “People move to Seattle from all over the world, and many face challenges communicating,” Supriya explains. “They can call the Language Bank coordinator and ask for a translator, and the coordinator sends out a volunteer to help.” The program currently offers translation and interpretation for 54 languages.

Supriya had a chance to serve as a translator through the Language Bank when a three-year-old South Indian girl and her parents needed help communicating with a speech therapist. Supriya visited the girl’s home during therapy sessions and played an integral role in the process. But opportunities to translate these languages are few and far between.

“People from South India often don’t need a translator because many are good at speaking English,” she explains.

In addition to providing general office support for the Language Bank, Supriya does public outreach at community events, like the fundraiser held in Seattle’s Chinatown for victims of the typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2012. While dancers performed traditional Chinese dragon dances in the streets, Supriya and other Red Cross volunteers spread the word about services available through the Language Bank.

Back in India, Supriya worked as a tutor and library teacher, and she hopes to pursue a teaching career in the U.S. She volunteers at an Eastside school during the week, and on weekends, she assists teachers at a Tamil school in Old Redmond Community Center, which brings in 200-300 students from surrounding communities.

“I love kids and would like to be with them and explore the education system here,” Supriya says. “I was brought up in India, where education culture is very different. I thought I should get experience in how this education system works.” She plans to begin a teacher training education course in September.

Supriya would like to volunteer in the field at a disaster if given the opportunity. For now, though, she’s happy in her role. “I’m proud to be part of the Red Cross. If any of my friends wanted to volunteer, I would definitely encourage them to try the Red Cross.”

Volunteer Spotlight – Dixie Ferguson

"Donut Dolly"

Volunteer Dixie Ferguson joined the American Red Cross in 1966 after she graduated from college with a degree in social work when she heard the Red Cross was hiring to work with the military members overseas.

“I learned about the Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO), a special Red Cross program for women college graduates during wartime.  I was excited about the job description, a unique opportunity to serve my country, do humanitarian work and seek new adventures.”

Dixie worked as a recreation worker, nicknamed “Donut Dolly” by the service members. From 1966 to 1967, Dixie was in Vietnam helping military members in both An Khe and Bien Hoa. Dixie holds a special memory of the USO show from her time in Vietnam.

“The Bob Hope Christmas show came to An Khe, the army base in Central Highlands of Viet Nam.  The Red Cross girls sat with hundreds of fighting men and the wounded in their blue pajamas.   All of us enjoyed the wonderful singing, dancing and humor. It was a taste from home”

Later she went on to work as a recreational worker in several military hospitals state-side.

Almost fifty years later, Dixie is still very active with the Red Cross Service to Armed Forces program in Walla Walla, Washington. Her main responsibilities are as an outreach coordinator and emergency communications caseworker.

“The Red Cross is still serving the military and veterans every hour of the day and I am extremely proud to be a volunteer supporting the Armed Forces.”

Seeing the need in her area for more help with Disaster Services she also volunteers her time as a Disaster Action Team Lead and Emergency Response Vehicle member for national deployments.

Volunteer Spotlight: Bill Boyd

Bill BoydBy Tiffany Koenig

Bill Boyd’s drive to help others got its start in an unusual place: a funeral home. Bill’s father was a mortician and disaster responder in Idaho during a time when ambulances were operated out of funeral homes, and Bill frequently tagged along with his dad to house fires.

Those early experiences watching his father, who was also a first aid instructor for the Red Cross, pointed Bill in the direction of public service. He started his career as a paramedic and eventually became chief of the Bellingham Fire Department, a position he retired from in 2012. “In my role as a fire captain in the field and as chief,” Bill says, “we relied heavily on the Red Cross to help people who were sitting on the curb in their bathrobes. The Red Cross would swoop in to help and took a big load off of us.”

The Red Cross also made a big impression on Bill after the Olympic Pipeline explosion in 1999. He was a fire commander during the first week, working with the pipeline president and government officials in a high-stress environment. Red Cross volunteers had food lines set up and ready for them. “I remember the Red Cross volunteers in their vests smiling and asking how we were doing. That meant a lot. It showed the community support during this horrific event.”

He also remembers a Bellingham house fire that had been started by a teenager while his parents were gone. “The volunteer team that arrived to help showed so much compassion and guided the situation for the parents and kid,” Bill recalls. “They brought the family together.”

After Bill retired from the fire department, he turned to the Red Cross as a way to continue serving the community. “I believe in the mission of the Red Cross. It’s a noble mission. The organization is made up of people who are drawn to helping. Board members are well connected in the community and have a passion for helping the community, and the Red Cross is an excellent vehicle for doing that.”

Now, as the chair of the board of directors for the Northwest Washington chapter, Bill is responsible for coordinating with executive and regional directors to make sure the board supports the Red Cross mission by acting as conduits to local businesses and public agencies. Board members serve as ambassadors and champions for their local chapter, seeking new volunteers and funding sources and advocating with the public. Bill says, “The thing I like about it the most is interfacing with the other board members, all of whom are business leaders, believers, and champions for the Red Cross. They are proud but humble in their support of our great group of volunteers and staff.”

Bill wants current and potential volunteers to know that their participation is extremely valuable. “Don’t underestimate your talents and your ability to help,” he says. “Just the

fact that you’re willing to step out and help—the Red Cross will find something for you to do. Everyone’s got a niche or a skill that can come into play. Everyone can have a role in fulfilling the Red Cross mission, whether it’s answering phones, office work, bookkeeping, or disaster work. We can use the help.”