Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Humanitarian Relief and the Red Cross -- What We Learned

Yesterday, we had the privilege and honor of hosting a guest speaker in the Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare course that I am teaching at the Isenberg School of Management.

Our speaker was Mr. Rick Lee, who has worked for the Red Cross for close to three decades and is the Executive Director of the Red Cross Pioneer Valley Chapter. He is in the photo above with some of the students. He is a regular guest on radio and TV programs and it was very special that he took the time out of his busy schedule to educate us.

In his presentation, he overviewed not only the history of the Red Cross, even going back to Clara Barton, but also described its various symbols from the Red Cross (see photo below) to the Red Crescent and the Red Crystal, which was introduced in 2006.

The founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 and the Red Cross has received 3 Nobel Peace Prizes. The Red Cross has to be politically neutral and relies entirely on the donations of others from time to money to blood.

Keeping the trust of people is job #1 and its principal role is in disaster and emergency response; hence, it has to guarantee the safety of the products that it provides (including food) as well as the integrity of its volunteers and paid staff (not many).

When the tornadoes hit our area on June 1, 2011
, and affected an area 1/4 of a mile wide but 39 miles long, the coordination and teamwork that took effect and the role of the Red Cross in it was amazing. The devastation was mapped by individuals walking the areas.

The Mass Mutual Center in Springfield was the major area shelter and the Red Cross served thousands of meals and thousands of snacks through June 30, providing personal care packages, as well as securing healthcare and even support for finding housing. Mr. Lee showed us photos of the devastation and the assistance that followed, with many major corporations, in addition to Mass Mutual, donating thousands of dollars and some bringing water and energy drinks in truckloads.

The Red Cross relies on trust and, hence, financial donations are what is sorely needed during and post disasters as well as trained volunteers (who have undergone background checks). After the tornado disaster, all 100 volunteers showed up (of different religions, races, and professional status, but all joined by the desire to help) without even being called. He told us how he then called 100 individuals representing various corporations to get financial assistance and of the many who responded. A gentleman from Colorado, with ties to Springfield, who had heard abut the unexpected devastation sent in a $100,000 check to help in relief operations.

As for who lifted the spirits of the amazing Red Cross volunteers at the Mass Mutual Center -- none other than Bill Cosby. He showed up and, I might add, he has a doctorate in education from UMass Amherst. He also entertained those who had been displaced to the shelter and lifted their spirits (but he did it outside on Manor Square).

Mr. Rick Lee emphasized many of the aspects of emergency response and disaster relief that we have been covering in the course that I am teaching (without even being prompted) and he brought his depth of humanity and years of experience with humanitarian relief work to the students. One can prepare for high probability, low impact events but the low probability, high impact events are the truly challenging ones (and Massachusetts and New England have certainly had their share of such events this past year alone).

He told us about how someone he knows, after hearing on the news that day that a tornado was to strike, called his wife because the meteorologist was projecting a certain path for the tornado in Springfield and it was to hit their house. He told his wife to put the car in the garage and to go into the basement bathroom and to get in the tub -- the tornado struck 4 minutes afterwards-- the house was leveled, but his wife survived and crawled out from under the rubble. This meteorologist, according to Mr. Lee, saved numerous lives, and will be honored as a Hometown Hero later this season.

He told us about how a preschool in Springfield with 24 children was also leveled but that everyone survived because they had also made it to the basement. When the caretakers and children stumbled out of their destroyed preschool, they saw in front of them a schoolbus (Mr. Lee invoked God here) with child seats and a driver who ferried them all away to safety.

One must understand that trees were downed, houses and buildings were destroyed, certain roads impassable, and electric power lines were down. That month of June, Mr. Lee and the Red Cross volunteers worked 16 hour days.

He also told us that what is needed in those who work in humanitarian organizations and operations is kindness and integrity (but he also said that he wishes that there were courses such as the one I am teaching when he went to college). He emphasized the importance of relationships and communications with the former taking time to develop.

He told us to "Do the Right Thing," although it may not be politically popular and it may be very difficult.

As for the personal rewards of such hard work -- clearly the rewards are not monetary, but as Mr. Lee told us yesterday, when you help someone during his/her darkest hours, there is no greater reward.

The class was too short and some of us continued the conversation with him as he left the Isenberg School of Management.