‘The kindness in your voice makes a difference’: over the phone from Wisconsin to Michigan, volunteers talk about virtual deployments

Story By Angela Glowacki / Photos by Perry Rech, American Red Cross

Despite a global pandemic, our Red Crossers are still connecting with and assisting those in need from large-scale disasters through virtual deployments.

Liz Marsh and Barbara Gugel are two dedicated Wisconsin Region volunteers who have been virtually deployed in response to the central Michigan flooding that occurred in May.

Now that they’ve been helping our neighbors in Michigan for the past few weeks, we asked them to share their experiences with virtual deployments, how it compares to other in-person work with the American Red Cross and the takeaways they’ve heard from people on the ground in Michigan.

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Flood damage in what remains of downtown Sanford, Mich., following the draining of both the Wixom Lake and Sanford Lake impoundments along the Titabawassee River. 

Liz Marsh

Liz started her journey with the Red Cross three years ago after deciding that she wanted to do something for her community. She has been virtually deployed five times – assisting in the recovery process of disasters from tornadoes in Texas and Illinois to flooding in Wisconsin. In addition to being a dedicated volunteer, Liz is a mother of five who lives in northeast Wisconsin.

“I wanted to see a change in my community … and there was no Red Cross [volunteers at the time in Shawano County] … so I wanted to do something for our community to help”, Liz said.

Interestingly, Liz has only ever been virtually deployed to disasters. When asked how it feels to still be able to do her work despite current circumstances, she replied that it is fulfilling to know that she is able to be a resource for people in need.

Liz’s Michigan experience

Liz has been working in the Midland area of Michigan and has been working with many senior clients, where she addresses some added difficulty for them due to COVID-19. She expressed how it has been challenging for seniors in particular due to their increased risks from potentially contracting the virus.

One of the people Liz has worked with during her virtual deployment to Michigan is a veteran who suffered from a stroke back in November. Two days after he was released from the hospital, the flood occurred, damaging his and his wife’s home. A stroke, a pandemic, the flood and then the added stress of paying for all related home repairs and hospital bills. Liz has been working with this couple throughout her time being virtually deployed – she was even promoted to supervisor –assisting them with finding resources and providing support.

“I can relate to the mass devastation of not knowing the next turn and needing the extra help and … [I get] the ability to be a killer resource and figure out the problem and solve it so they can move on to recovery,” she said.

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Michigan volunteer American Red Cross Disaster Assessment Team members on a deserted and closed state road in Edenville, Mich., immediately downstream from the failed Edenville Dam.

Barbara Gugel

Barbara joined the Red Cross as a volunteer one and a half years ago, thanks to her neighbor who got her interested in volunteering with the organization. Her volunteer work with the Red Cross includes experience in sheltering, feeding, casework, driving emergency vehicles, as well as being a Disaster Action Team supervisor for Columbia and Dane Counties.

When the flooding in Michigan occurred, Barbara began calling those affected by the flood, helping them find temporary housing and addressing their needs. In the first two days of her virtual deployment, Barbara had contacted 32 people and opened 12 cases all from her home in Lodi, Wisconsin.

Barbara’s Michigan experience

Barbara is working with people located upriver, in the counties of Gladwin and Beaverton of Michigan. One family that Barbara has connected with is a family of four, plus the mother’s elderly father in law who has physical limitations. They have been staying in a hotel during these past couple of days. Barbara has been staying in touch with this family frequently during her time virtually deployed, providing them not only with support, but also a listening ear.

Not all of Barbara’s clients are sheltered in hotels. She mentioned that some of her clients were renting campers, or borrowing them from friends. Campgrounds around the area have opened up for these clients to give them a place to stay. In some cases, if a client’s property is safe enough, the camper is parked on the property so that the family can still be near their home.

“You’re still helping to alleviate human suffering,” Barbara said. “The kindness in your voice makes a difference.”

Virtual or not, you can still make a difference

Thanks to volunteers like Liz and Barbara, the Red Cross has been able to assist many people affected by the flooding. Despite the deployments being virtual, our volunteers are still able to be there for their clients and get them the help they need. Beyond that, they are able to be a much needed listener and a (socially distanced) shoulder to lean on. Here are two ways you can help this mission continue, virtual or in-person: