Doing their best when things are at their worst
Red Cross volunteers in Southern Maryland share their stories
In the middle of the night, smoke wakes up family members as a fire spreads, burning through their house, destroy- ing cherished memories. They escape and watch helplessly as firefighters battle
the engulfing flames. The single mother and her six children stand next to the smoldering ruins, devastated.
Then, a friend they never knew they had arrives.
A Red Cross volunteer has been dispatched to provide immediate assistance to the family. And two hours later they are set up in a hotel with a Red Cross emergency funds debit card that will help them through their crisis for the next few days.
“They lost everything,” St. Mary’s Red Cross volunteer Dan Skelley recalled.
“The kids were wearing whatever they were sleeping in,” he said. “And I was able to meet with her and get her one of these assistance cards.”
In the following days, Skelley worked with the mother, helping her contact agencies that would assist the family in the long term while he addressed their immediate needs.
“I kind of talked her through it and made a plan for that day. The next morning, I met her again and we made the plan for the next day,” he continued. “The first day plan was all about the children, getting them shoes, so they could get to school. When we met the next day, we had met the children’s needs and then we started talking more long term.”
Skelley is one of about 315 active Red Cross volunteers throughout Southern Maryland.
Tony Colantonio volunteers his time as an on-call disaster relief specialist in Charles County, while also representing the organization at community events, as well as many other behind-thescenes duties.
Amanda Hollins, a board member of the Southern Maryland branch, volunteers in disaster relief in Calvert County, participates in community outreach initiatives and typically teaches two CPR/ first aid classes a month.
The Red Cross is best known for its disaster relief efforts and blood donation services, but for new volunteers “the sky is the limit,” said Jason Marshall, executive director of the Red Cross’ Southern Maryland branch. “It’s just up to the person and where their interests lie, but we have lots of training for lots of different opportunities … and we’re always looking for volunteers.
“We’re actually very active with the military, and not a whole lot of people know that,” he continued, adding that the Red Cross has offices on almost every major U.S. military installation worldwide, providing a wide array of service.
From data-entry work from home, to driving a Red Cross blood transport vehicle, to deploying with the military, there are many opportunities for volunteers to give back to the community.
“I’m what the Red Cross calls a ‘Katrina baby,’” said Colantonio, who was inspired to join the organization after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast in 2005. Since he could not take off work for a month, he said, he supported the disaster relief efforts locally, while his wife, Linda, flew down to help in Louisiana and Mississippi for several weeks.
Now retired, Colantonio is an active member of a disaster action team.
“The greatest disaster in our area is the family house fire,” he said. “I’ve been serving in that capacity for the last 10 years [in Charles County]. Going out and helping people get over the first hours and the first couple of days of their major disaster after losing their homes.”
Colantonio has spent a decade helping those in need.
“It’s very rewarding that I’m able to take care of someone in an hour of some of their worse need,” he said. “I know that we all have life events and some of them are more traumatic than others, but a house fire is pretty traumatic for people.”
Hollins’ story is different but springs from the same impulse. She wanted to help people.
After learning the skills acquired through a CPR/first aid class offered by the Red Cross, she decided she wanted to get involved in the organization as well. Hollins went through the required training and began teaching the course herself, and her role continued to grow as she learned more about the Red Cross.
“The more I talked to the folks that worked with the Red Cross, the more I learned about the organization and what they did, and my role expanded based on their needs and my interests,” she said.
Soon, she joined a disaster action team and began helping displaced families in Calvert County, who are often surprised that such help exists.
“They’re always very grateful. And to be able to meet that need in ways that they maybe didn’t expect. I think they’re kind of surprised when we show up sometimes,” Hollins said. “And it’s not the Red Cross that’s just doling out their own money. This is money that people have donated; this is generosity of your neighbors that make this possible. It’s humbling for me to be able to give those services, and they’re very grateful when they receive them.”
By profession, Hollins is a senior business analyst and helps manage the financial operations of the company she works for. When Marshall learned of her skill set, he asked her to join the board of directors of the Southern Maryland branch of the Red Cross.
“It’s an organization that I believe in and that I feel passionate about,” she said.
In St. Mary’s County, Skelley joined the Red Cross after his retirement.
“How do I want to help and give back to my community?” he asked himself. “I did a lot of research, and the Red Cross was working to re-establish more of a presence in Southern Maryland.”
And so, he began to take the Red Cross online training modules in his spare time.
“The Red Cross is really great about this,” Skelley said. “They have lots of online training to get me up to speed. They’re very organized. I could do it at home. I could do it at my pace.”
After completing his general training, Skelley decided he wanted to specialize in disaster relief and community engagement, though he is willing to help whenever an extra hand is needed.
On one occasion, Skelley participated as a casualty in a mock-bombing training exercise in Baltimore in which police, fire and EMS personnel reacted as they would in real time. The volunteers were given cards, explaining their individual roles.
To be able to help the first responders in the training was a great experience, he said.
Skelley’s commitment is spurred by the feeling he gets from helping people, one of the reasons why disaster relief seemed ideal to him.
“It really gives you a chance to help people when they don’t even know where to turn,” he said. “Just having the ability to get out there to a small disaster like a house fire or a flood victim and to be able to talk to them ... and immediately hand them assistance … I feel pretty good doing it. It’s something that I think is unique.”
Those interested in volunteering with the American Red Cross can call volunteer specialist Gloria Coliton at 410-627-5369 or email email@example.com.
“What would I say to somebody who wants to volunteer for the Red Cross?” Hollins asked. “When can you start?”
Charles County Red Cross volunteer Tony Colanatio shares a brochure with a military veteran who volunteered for a time as a mobile blood bus driver with the Red Cross after his career.
Calvert County Red Cross volunteer Amanda Hollins demonstrates how to assist an infant who is choking during a CPR/first aid class.
Left, Calvert County Red Cross volunteer Amanda Hollins demonstrates how to assist someone who is choking during a CPR/first aid class. Right, Hollins demonstrates how to assist an infant who is choking.