by Amy Yen, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross
Each November, Military Family Appreciation Month is an opportunity for Americans to honor the families of our nation’s service members. While we all know what our Armed Forces do for our country, we don’t often think about the many sacrifices their families make to support the brave men and women that make our way of life possible.
As it is widely known as a disaster relief agency, many people don’t realize that the Red Cross has a Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) Division that serves thousands of military service members, veterans and their families each year. In fact, as Gigi Winburn, Service to the Armed Forces/International Services Regional Program Manager for North Texas, notes, it’s where the Red Cross got its roots.
“Most people don’t know that the Red Cross started on the ground, in the battlefield,” said Winburn. “Our mission with Service to the Armed Forces is to support each service member and their family from the time they enter the military to the day they die. It’s ongoing support.”
Always Within Reach
Support for families begins from the moment the service member arrives at the MEPS: the Military Entrance Processing Station.
“They call it ‘Freedom’s Front Door,’” said Winburn.
Red Cross volunteers canteen at the MEPS, providing water and snacks, and talking with service members and their families to make sure they know about the services available to them, in particular how the Red Cross can help get a hold of the service member in case of a family emergency such as a death in the family or birth of a child or grandchild.
“We are the only organization that is chartered through Congress and trusted by the Department of Defense to verify an emergency message,” explained Winburn. “So if the message comes through us, the command knows it’s a legitimate request and that makes it easier for the service member to get that time off to come home. We can connect with the service members no matter where they are in the world. No matter if they’re on a submarine in the middle of the ocean, we can still reach them when needed. We’re the only organization that can do that.”
A lot of the challenges military families face are related to the distance and separation from their loved ones if they are deployed. “There’s a big comfort in knowing that there’s a way to contact their service member and get them home if they need it,” Winburn explained.
After training, the Red Cross continues to serve military families through resiliency training, reconnection workshops and even children’s workshops, to make sure families know what to expect. Most recently, SAF became part of the Home Fire Campaign, so Red Cross volunteers now go out to the homes of military families to install smoke alarms and educate them about home fire safety.
“We want to make sure our military families have a good quality of life and that they have the services they need and that they deserve,” said Winburn.
Help in Your Hands
It’s now easier than ever for military families to find the help that they need. The Red Cross recently launched its newest mobile app, the Hero Care app, to put its Service to the Armed Forces resources right on your mobile device.
“The Hero Care app is wonderful. It allows service members, veterans and their families to go on their phones and access all of our services,” said Winburn. “They can initiate an emergency message, find a veteran service organization that can help them with something they need, find pre-deployment information, resiliency training or even information about how to volunteer if that’s something they are interested in. It’s a great one-stop resource.”
The Red Cross’ Hero Care app is free to download and is available in both English and Spanish. Download it by searching RED CROSS in the iOS or Android app store or by texting GETHEROCARE to 90999.
Many times, the military families the Red Cross serves end up serving as well.
“We have a lot of volunteers with a military connection. Either they served or they have a family member who served or is serving,” explains Winburn. “Oftentimes volunteering gives them a sense of accomplishment and connection. They have such a passion to help other military families.”
With just three full-time staff members working in Service to the Armed Forces for the entire North Texas Region, volunteers are not just a luxury.
“If it was not for our volunteer force, there’s no way we could accomplish what we do,” said Winburn.
Service to the Armed Forces volunteers have a wide range of duties, from canteening for new military members and their families at MEPS stations to planning activities at VA hospitals. That could be something as simple as passing out balloon and gifts for veterans’ birthdays, or even installing wheelchair-accessible gardening beds. There’s also opportunities for volunteers to come into the chapter and make calls to families who have gone through MEPS to make sure they know emergency communications and other services.
SAF volunteers do not have to have a military connection, although they often do, they just have to have a drive and desire to help military members and their families.
“We look for people who have compassion and patience, because sometimes those service members have been through horrific ordeals, and they need someone who’s willing to listen to them. They really just have to have that drive to serve and to give back,” said Winburn.
Like many Red Cross volunteer positions, SAF volunteers can work a variety of hours and can work from the chapter or in the field, depending on the volunteer’s availability and what they would like to do. Winburn just wants them to get involved.
“It’s such an important service that we provide that not that many people know about, and I encourage everyone to get involved in one way or another,” she said. “Even if it’s just volunteering one day a month, just getting to know these families and the challenges they face, it’s really life-changing. Once you have an opportunity to give back in that capacity, whether you have a military background or not, just getting involved is so rewarding. You’ll know you made a difference in somebody’s life, someone who stood up and was willing to give their life for this country.”
Interested in joining the SAF team? Go to RedCross.org/volunteer and ask about volunteering for Service to the Armed Forces during your application process. Want to learn more about Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces services? Visit RedCross.org/military.