HAVERHILL — Of the many ways a person can volunteer their time, there's an option to directly impact people in a time of crisis and uncertainty.
Whether it's a natural disaster like a hurricane, or more commonly an accidental one, like a house fire, the American Red Cross plays a critical role in helping children and adults as they begin to recover from losses.
The organization relies primarily on volunteers, but there just aren't enough of them at this time.
Deb Duxbury, disaster program manager for the American Red Cross of Northeast Massachusetts, says her current staff of 25 volunteers is barely big enough to cover the 59 communities in Essex County and part of Middlesex County they are responsible for.
She said prior to the pandemic a disaster action team would typically arrive at the scene of an incident and begin gathering personal information from displaced residents.
But as of March 16, 2020, her volunteers have been doing most of their work by phone, after fire officials gather essential information about those displaced and relay it to the Red Cross.
Duxbury said residents displaced by a recent house fire in Haverhill were given money for hotel stays, food and clothing. The Red Cross also helped pay for medical prescriptions that were lost, she said.
Follow-up case workers referred the displaced residents to other community-based agencies such as Ruth's House and the Salvation Army, Duxbury said.
Her disaster action teams are available around the clock, working in six-hour shifts.
"In the month of March, my team responded to 18 fires," she said. "It's taxing on our volunteers, about two-thirds of whom have jobs then come home to their families, to spouses, or to parents, and then sign in for their shift."
One of those volunteers is retired Haverhill High teacher Dave Reed, 70, of Bradford.
He joined the organization during fall 2017, about the time Hurricane Maria devastatingly swept across the northeastern Caribbean.
Reed is now a member of three different Red Cross teams: The disaster action team led by Deb Duxbury, a recovery casework team and a Mass. Care shelter team, both of which are Red Cross functions.
"I'd retired from teaching at Haverhill High for 36 years and the Red Cross was looking for volunteers," he said. "Deb Duxbury conducted some initial training. We also participated in training online."
One of his first calls was to an early morning fire in a multi-family building in Lawrence.
"Since I'm bilingual, I was able to speak directly to some of our clients," he said. "As a member of a recovery team, I call clients back in 24 to 48 hours to see how they are doing, where they are staying and what other needs they may have."
Reed has responded to dozens of fires and other disasters, and helped provide shelter to people displaced by the Merrimack Valley gas explosions in Sept. 2018.
"People don't often know where to turn while they are in the middle of a crisis, so we're there to provide some stability and peace of mind," he said. "It feels good to be able to help and I encourage others to get involved as much as they feel comfortable with."
After a fire department calls the Red Cross, volunteer "duty officers" gather information about the clients then they call Duxbury's volunteers.
"In addition to gathering personal information, we'll ask if they have a place to stay, if they've lost medication and if they would they like to speak to a member of our mental health team," she said.
Volunteers might transfer money electronically while they are on the phone with a client.
"If they prefer a debit card we'll send a disaster action team member to where they can meet the client," Duxbury said.
Her volunteers average about 20 minutes or so on the phone with a client.
She said the state manages recovery volunteers as well as duty officers and mental health providers.
Her 25 volunteers are split into two teams: Northeast 1 and Northeast 2.
Duxbury's first team is half the size it should be — with 20 volunteers instead of the preferred 40. Her Northeast 2 team should have 40, but only has five volunteers.
"We've been shorthanded for a long time and COVID-19 brought it down lower, to where it is now," she said. "Pre-COVID we had about 45 volunteers, which is still short of the 80 that we'd like to have."
For more information on becoming a Red Cross volunteer, visit online at redcross.org and click on the tab for "Volunteer" or call 800-564-1234.