Story and photo by Dick McGee
The second day of the large scale distribution by the American Red Cross of cleaning supplies, water, and food went off like clockwork at the Babylon Town Hall on Long Island Sunday. Lessons learned in the previous day were put into play by fifty volunteers from Suffolk County who, under the able direction of team leader, Donna McNeff, turned what could have been mass chaos into a well oiled machine. A line of cars started forming before 10:00 am, and began rolling through the pick-up zone at the rate of at least fifty per hour throughout the day.
A veteran with five years of service to the local Red Cross, Donna was full of praise for her volunteers. “I have a great team. Everyone knows their task, and is performing beautifully to make this a seamless effort,” Donna explained.
As each car rolled into the area, Donna was the first person they encountered. With few words and a welcome smile she gave brief instructions to the drivers so they knew what to expect as they navigated between the rows of products available to them. “How many persons in your family?”, she inquired of each one, and then relayed that information to her team.
Volunteers approached each vehicle from the right side carrying cases of water and heater meals ready to eat. When requested, others brought diapers and baby wipes, while another group brought an assortment of canned and boxed groceries that had been generously donated by community residents. Approaching the vehicle from the left, another volunteer brought a large bag of personal comfort items for each family.
In barely more than a minute each car was loaded and moved further down the line where another set of volunteers was ready to place a box of hot meals, bread, snacks, and fruit from one of four Red Cross ERVs into the vehicle. There was a hot meal for each person in the family, including those who didn’t make the trip to the distribution site. “The gratitude of these people for what we are doing is overwhelming,” Donna said with humble pride for her role in the distribution effort. Donna is fully aware of what disaster victims experience because, as a young teenager, her family lost everything in a house fire and literally started life over from scratch. “ Encountering someone in despair, and then being able to put a smile on their face before they drive away is the most rewarding aspect of working with the Red Cross.” A similar sentiment was expressed by Carla Santucci, one of Donna’s crew, when she exclaimed, “ It’s so nice to feel useful.”
But thanks to Donna McNeff’s mature sensitivity, the Red Cross dispensed more than physical products at Lindenhurst this day. Approaching each car, Donna took quick note of the driver’s expression at the first encounter. When she saw eyes full of dejection, hopelessness or despair, a brief touch of her hand on the shoulder was all that was needed to say, “I understand, and I care.” On several such occasions the driver, or a passenger in the car, would break into tears and invite a warm embrace from this gentle woman. In such situations, a local Red Cross mental health worker, watching from the sidelines, stepped forward and gently invited the car to move to the side of the road where a short, but warm and empathic, conversation could ensue.
Volunteers like this enable the Red Cross to distribute physical goods in the context of dispensing unlimited quantities of hope and courage.