Angel in a Red Cross Vest: A Volunteer Discovers the Power Behind a Smile

By Jennifer Hansen, Regional Marketing Specialist, American Red Cross

It was what had become a typical afternoon at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center shelter: the monotony of routine was settling in nearly two weeks after Hurricane Harvey had devastated south Texas, and shelter residents were grappling with equal parts uncertainty about the future and homesickness.

On this particular afternoon, a stoic elderly woman and her adult son were waiting in line for the shelter’s clinic, when an unusual sight passed them by: a man, sporting a Red Cross vest, smiled and waved, his bright blue eyes and puckish smile giving way to a cheery red foam clown nose on his face. A silly, comedic scene in the midst of a dreary day. The woman cracked a smile.

“And suddenly I hear ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’” the clown-nosed Red Cross volunteer, Murphy Whittsitt, said.

He turned around to find the adult son, who introduced himself as Robert, calling after him. Here Murphy pauses, his eyes starting to well as he recalled what Robert said next.

“He said ‘My mom has Parkinson’s and that’s the first time I’ve seen her smile in three days.’” A profound moment of connection and grace in what has been a difficult situation for thousands.

Moments such as these have become Murphy’s calling card during his time in Dallas. Through such small gestures – a 10-cent foam clown nose, a smile, a wave, eye contact, a kind word – the Des Moines, Iowa father of three has been able to reach evacuees where others have not.

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“The only thing I’d ever done before with the Red Cross was give blood,” he said, now with the perspective of a seasoned volunteer.

After seeing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey and the subsequent flooding, he was moved to sign up with the Red Cross. “I just really felt like it was something I should do.” A few days later, he was bound for Texas on his first volunteer deployment.

He was initially assigned to the convention center shelter, assisting in Mass Care and the dormitories. After a couple of days, he was then transferred to the logistics team at the Dallas office, where he spends his days working in the warehouse readying supplies for shelter distribution.

But those initial few days working in the shelter gave him the opportunity to interact with the residents, which would turn out to be the most rewarding part of his deployment, and his true purpose. Even now, he makes a point of visiting the shelter every day after his shift to connect with the residents.

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“I’d talk to families, and we’d end up bonding because they’ve just gone through so much and they just want to talk and vent and share…I’m a big talker, so it helped me learn how to listen a little bit,” he added, chuckling.

And listen he did, learning what the residents enjoy, what their kids like to do, giving him enough information to find little ways to make their experience just a bit brighter.

Through generous donations from friends and family back home in Iowa, Murphy was able to purchase small items and toys, which he’d pack into a waist pack before heading over to the shelter. Balls, coloring books, clown noses (by now a crowd favorite), rubber balls and more were gradually and happily distributed each evening as he made his rounds through the shelter. He noticed one woman reading her bible; he came back the next night with a bible word search. He procured a small bag of M&Ms for Robert’s mother. He found and delivered several cardboard ‘canvases’ for an artist who wanted to paint scenes from his evacuation and shelter experience. He helped a father locate his 10-yr old son who’d fallen asleep on the wrong cot. He helped gather pillows for those that needed them. He delivered a coke and a smile to two women in need of a pick-me-up.

His “gifts” aren’t necessarily meant to fulfill a need in as much as they are to spread kindness and joy. When another woman, Rose, noticed Murphy sporting his clown nose, she asked if she could have one. He was happy to oblige, but with two conditions.

“You can’t share the nose with anyone because I don’t want people getting sick, and you have to make people smile.” Rose agreed and was soon sporting a clown nose of her own, slowly moving up and down the dormitory aisles in her wheelchair, smiling and waving at her fellow residents, many of them smiling back.

And so it goes, his daily routine as a Red Cross volunteer, giving the residents so much more than food and shelter. After a day spent in the warehouse at the Red Cross headquarters in Dallas, he heads over to the shelter to visit, making new friends in the process. He sits and listens, he shares in their joys, their worries, he colors with the kids, and offers a smile and a hug for anyone who needs them.

His message of comfort has also gone beyond the shelter walls, reaching evacuees wherever their situation takes them. He helped reunite a shelter couple who’d been separated after the husband was sent to the emergency room, without his cell phone, and had subsequently been admitted to the hospital. Worried, and with no way to contact him, his wife had no idea where he was. Murphy solicited the help of the Dallas police and fire departments to track him down, and the husband was located. Through Murphy’s outreach, the hospital even arranged accommodations for the wife to stay with her husband while he was still in the hospital.

Recounting these experiences, tears gather in his eyes often, enunciating the impact these connections have had on him. This isn’t just volunteer work; the shelter residents aren’t strangers. These are life experiences and meaningful interactions that have been the essence of his Red Cross mission.

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His Red Cross experience has also had larger implications on Murphy’s life: when he returns to Des Moines later this week, he returns committed to finding ways to link his professional life with more charitable endeavors. A professional in the printing industry, he plans to research donating extra reams of paper leftover from the printing process as coloring and craft paper to shelters and charitable organizations. During his Dallas stay, he was also able to secure an in-kind donation of coloring books from the publisher, and hopes to engage more companies for in-kind donations to non-profits.

Above all, Murphy’s experience with the Red Cross has cemented a special calling for him to reach out to those in need in his own special way, with something as small, yet powerful, as a smile.

“I was telling the guys in the warehouse about the unintended consequences of a smile,” he said. “I gave out a few clown noses, I smiled at people, and look what happened: I made them happy.”

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