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Valley Voices: Red Cross takes on crises near and far

The local chapter of the American Red Cross has been busy this year, helping at house fires in Stanislaus County and sending dozens of volunteers to help people hit by storms in the Midwest and Gulf Coast.

In California, the American Red Cross has helped at fires in Southern California, and in Butte and Monterey counties. Closer to home, the American Red Cross helped come up with $27,000 to help residents from the Oak Haven Senior Apartments in Oakdale, which caught fire Sept. 11, 2007.

Now, the group faces a new challenge. Executive Director Rebecca Ciszek has been charged with trying to raise $77,000 to donate toward the National Disaster Relief Fund by the end of the year. The fund helps with current and past disasters.

Ciszek spoke with The Bee last week about what the Stanislaus County chapter of the American Red Cross does, the local volunteers who have responded to this year's storms and how county residents can help with national relief efforts.

Q: What has the American Red Cross done locally in the past year?

A: When the fire (department) or police call, we respond to help families in need. In just this past year, we have helped over 446 household members, providing over $58,000 in emergency aid after home fires. We do emergency military communication, and we've provided over 241 contacts that have helped military members come home when there is an emergency here in Stanislaus County and they need their deployed loved one to come home.

Just in the last three months, July, August and September, we've already provided over 90 individuals or family members with over $6,000 in assistance. And that was just due to incidences that affected a home. So, for the first quarter, we've had a pretty busy year.

Q: Can you give us a little roundup of the storm season so far this year?

A: It's been a very busy year for the American Red Cross as a whole across the nation. We have had epic storms. When you think of Katrina, folks think how big that was and how many people that impacted. What folks don't realize is that the floods that happened in the Midwest in the middle of July, that flood spanned so many thousands of miles that it really was a larger population base affected than Katrina, only it was spread along little pockets of rural communities along the Mississippi river. And we, of course, have been very active with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and tropical storms Hannah and Faye. Folks are in need. And folks need help. And the American Red Cross is there to help them in their time of need.

Q: Do we have people out there and, if so, what are they doing?

A: Close to 30 individuals have helped in the Midwest floods and on into Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. And currently, just for Gustav and Ike, we've had 23 disaster volunteers that have been in the field almost two months now.

We've had representatives from Ceres, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank and Turlock. So our volunteers are not just Modesto volunteers. They ... just love to go out and provide their knowledge and their assistance and their compassion to others who are hurting. And it's not about just people who are standing on a soup line. We have nurses, we've had ERV drivers, which are the big vehicles that go out, mobile food kitchens. We've had folks who do welfare inquiry, helping people find other people. Damage assessment, going into the neighborhoods and assessing the level of damage to a house so they can report that to (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), so FEMA can provide a monetary reimbursement to families.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about what's happening with the National Disaster Relief Fund?

A: Currently, the American Red Cross nationally is on a $100 million campaign to raise funds for the National Disaster Relief Fund by Dec. 31, to take care of these storms as well as anything that could be coming down the line and storms that have happened in the past.

Q: And how can people help with the National Disaster Relief Fund effort?

A: Chapters across the United States have been given goals to help reach that $100 million. California's goal is $8 million. Stanislaus County's chapter's goal is $77,000. That seems like a lot of money. But my hope is that Stanislaus County can step up to the plate.

You can give by writing a check to the American Red Cross and putting down on the memo line just "National Disaster Relief Fund" or just "NDRF." You can go to our Web site,, and click on the little bar down on the left that says "donate." And you can, of course, go to the national (site),