By Gene Jeffers, San Gabriel Pomona Valley Chapter Board Chair
It was such a simple idea — to pick up the phone and call our own volunteers and see how they are doing during the pandemic shutdown. The Red Cross reaches out to people in our communities every day, offering comfort and care to all who need it. But in the middle of a pandemic shutdown, making wellness calls to our own volunteers? Who would ever think of such a thing?
Fortunately for Red Cross volunteers in Los Angeles, someone did. And that simple idea became Project Wellness.
“There was a feeling of powerlessness in the moment,” said Nikki Davis, Senior Director of Community and Volunteer Engagement. “People were frightened, worried. People were dying. Everything shut down in one mind-blowing week.”
For residents of the Los Angeles area, shelter-in-place orders were implemented in early March and all old routines ground to a halt.
“I was still busy on the phone recruiting volunteers,” Nikki said. “Calling people directly, sharing job descriptions, trying to find out if they were a good match.” After shelter-in-place was implemented, the calls got longer and she found herself sitting in her bedroom and getting to know the recruits as people.
“They were lonely,” Nikki said. “All had the same story because our lives had just been turned upside down: I missed helping others, working with others. What do we do now?”
“That’s when I thought we should be calling our volunteers to make sure they are okay,” she said. It would take some organizing and a team of volunteers to make the calls. As soon as she received permission from Red Cross LA CEO Jarrett Barrios, she was off and running. Project Wellness was official.
Nikki was unsure if she would find any volunteer callers given the strange times, but she was determined to try anyway.
“I sent out an email blast,” she said. “I reminded myself that if no one was interested that would be okay and that it might take a while to get the project going.”
The response to the idea was overwhelmingly positive and soon she had a cadre of volunteers, including several AmeriCorps members looking for new ways to serve the community.
The program ended up recruiting 87 volunteers, including 3 staff members. All told, Project Wellness volunteers were assigned to nearly 5,000 volunteers. Ninety percent were reached by phone or voicemail.
Some volunteers went above and beyond, each making hundreds of calls.
“I have time to do it,” said longtime blood donor and Western Los Angeles Chapter board member Michael Harvey. “I’d love to do it.” And do it he did, making more than 400 calls.
“It shocked some of our volunteers that we cared enough to call them and see how they were doing, how their families were doing,” he said. “With all that the Red Cross does for the community, the volunteers did not see this coming.”
“On one call, the volunteer’s mother answered the phone and started crying,” Michael said. “She told me her other son was in a coma and the entire family was at the hospital. I was there as a shoulder to empathize with her.”
That call lasted 20 minutes, and she let Michael know how grateful she was that Red Cross had reached out just to see how one of our volunteers was doing.
“My passion is to be of service to others,” Michael said. “With everything going on in the world these days, this is an easy thing to do.”
Judith Chambers, a member of the Los Angeles Region board, has dedicated 30 years to the Red Cross, inspired by how the organization helped her father during World War II when he was wounded.
“A lot of people were just grateful someone they didn’t know was checking to see if they were all right,” she said. “I would ask if they were by themselves or with friends. Check to see if there were any mental or health issues.”
Judith has been following up with one volunteer who serves Los Angeles in many capacities. She and her husband had driven to Texas to be with their pregnant daughter who lives there with her husband, who works as a first responder, and their 3-year-old child.
“I just keep checking in with her to see how everyone is doing,” she said. “As far as I know, Los Angeles is the only region doing this. Every region needs to be making these calls to our own volunteers in these challenging times.”
“I love helping people,” said Gloria Thomas, a retired DMV worker and Red Cross volunteer. “These phone calls are helping.”
In normal times, she is active with blood drives, fundraisers and preparedness presentations for children.
Like many of the other Project Wellness callers, she found so many volunteers were glad they were not being asked to do or give something.
“They were very surprised we were just checking on them. Everyone was very nice, really appreciative.”
Everyone Gloria called seemed to be doing fine.
“Red Crossers are pretty self-reliant,” she said. “I didn’t hear of any hardships or trials. Red Cross preparedness training might account for that.”
“Project Wellness is not some innovative, rocket-science activity,” Nikki said. “I just gave it a name, set up the system and volunteers took on thousands of phone calls. In our humanitarian environment, you have to have heart. You have to show that you care about others. That I care about you.”
Maya Angelou once wrote “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
During a difficult time, Project Wellness made Red Cross volunteers feel valued and cared for. And all it took was a phone call.