By Dave Larsen, Fort Hood Sentinel editorMarch 22, 2011
FORT HOOD, Texas -- Debbie MacDonald started her sojourn with the Red Cross by taking a CPR class after a family member fell ill. She found that she had a knack for it and a real interest in helping others.
"I ended up taking more courses and became a volunteer instructor," she said of her experience more than two decades ago. Today, she's the Red Cross assistant station manager at Fort Hood, operating the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center sub-station, her first paid position after years of volunteer work.
Since 1943, National Red Cross Month has been celebrated in March to focus on the selfless service of the army of volunteers and American Red Cross workers like MacDonald. Together, they shelter, feed and provide emotional support to victims of disasters; supply nearly half of the nation's blood; teach life-saving skills; provide international humanitarian aid; and support military members and their families.
MacDonald said her 45 volunteers make a huge difference at the hospital.
"We couldn't do what we do without them," she said, noting that there is an eight-to-one ratio of volunteers to paid Red Cross employees throughout the organization. "When people join the Red Cross by volunteering, donating blood, taking a course or making a contribution they enable us to continue our work, both here at home, and around the world."
At Fort Hood, MacDonald said service to the military community is their primary mission. That mission goes far beyond sending and receiving Red Cross emergency messages for servicemembers. The Red Cross also helps provide funding for some special programs supporting wounded warriors at Fort Hood.
"That's our Military Hospital Outreach Program," MacDonald said. "An example of that is there are some Soldiers in our Warrior Transition Unit with traumatic brain injuries. Sometimes, they have trouble remembering things. To assist them, we provide them with an iPod Touch with a calendar feature, and it's free."
She added that Nintendo DS hand-held games also are given free to wounded warriors to help their hand-eye coordination.
Another program the Red Cross assists with is equestrian-assisted physical therapy sessions for wounded warriors through the Georgetown-based R.O.C.K., or Ride On Center for Kids. This type of physical therapy can address a number of issues, from balance, TBIs and even stress management, MacDonald said. The organization itself notes that a partnership with a horse improves independence and life skills. MacDonald has seen the effects of such a partnership.
"Working with horses forces service members to begin to recognize their non-verbal cues," she explained. "You can't lie to a horse."
MacDonald said she's also working to bring a pet therapy program to the hospital soon, featuring therapy dogs.
"That's not ready yet," she said, "but we're close."
Those are programs supported by grants from the Red Cross, but you need look no further than the main entrance to the hospital to see the Red Cross at work. You'll see Ron and Lynn Iwanski, both Red Cross volunteers, assisting at the information desk.
"We just started a couple of months ago," Ron, an Army retiree said. "We like to help people."
"We've been working on increasing our visibility within the hospital," MacDonald said, noting that she has volunteers working in every department. "We're here to fill in the gaps. For example, at the information desk they don't have time to help people deliver flowers to a room, but we do."
Even before they reach its entrance, a new Red Cross initiative helps patients get in the hospital. "Caremobiles," small golf cart-like vehicles, patrol the hospital's parking lots, searching for visitors and patients who need a lift. One of the three volunteer drivers is MacDonald's husband, Randy, a retired Army sergeant major. Before the caremobiles got rolling, they were in need of repair, Debbie said.
"First, it was, 'Honey, fix it,'" Randy said with a laugh. "Then, it was, 'Honey, drive it.'"
Debbie said she's always looking for volunteers to assist as cart drivers or to serve in a myriad of other roles.
With the kick-off of the Summer Youth Volunteer Program, volunteer opportunities abound for teens in the Fort Hood community, as well, Debbie said. The program runs from June through August and places two teens in each hospital department.
"It gives youths an opportunity to work in a real-world environment," Debbie said. The Red Cross accepts 30-35 teens each year, on a first-come, first-served basis. Applications are available now, she added.
The Red Cross has been helping people for 130 years, responding to disasters, assisting members of the military, teaching lifesaving skills and serving as one of the largest blood suppliers in the United States.
"Think about the breadth of the things that they do for us," Maj. Gen. Will Grimsley, III Corps deputy commanding general, said March 8, during an award ceremony honoring Fort Hood's outgoing Senior Station Manager, Sharron Gilkey.
"(It's) everything from taking care of us in disasters, to just being there for us, to working emergency action messages, and getting our Soldiers home when things are going on, to just being a friendly face. They run the gamut," Grimsley said.
Nationally, the Red Cross responds to an average of nearly 200 disasters every day. The organization provides a round-the-clock link between those in the military and their families, and supplies blood and blood products to approximately 3,000 hospitals and transfusion centers across the country. National Red Cross Month recognizes the organization and its volunteers for everything they do.
"Red Cross Month is an opportunity to showcase some of the things that we do and for you to get to know us before you need us," said Gilkey, who is leaving Fort Hood soon for a new assignment at Yokota Air Base, Japan.
The Red Cross is not a government agency and relies on donations of time, money and blood to do its work. The hospital's assistant station manager here is happy to be a part of that team.
"To me, it's not just a job," Debbie said. "If you find something you really love, it's not work."