By Gordon Williams
Ask the typical volunteer how they first came in contact with the Red Cross and most often they’ll mention a blood drive or a first aid class. But MaryKate Hamilton of Spokane WA, a volunteer with the Red Cross Greater Inland Northwest Chapter, tells a very different story.
MaryKate was a young mother living in Singapore when her son was injured in a fall and needed surgery. The hospital needed both mother and father to authorize the operation but her husband — a helicopter pilot for oil companies — was at work in a distant jungle, and out of reach.
Not knowing who else to turn to, MaryKate turned to the local Red Cross organization — Singapore being one of the 192 entities affiliated with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The response was everything MaryKate could hope for. “The Singapore Red Cross went into the jungle and found him,” she says.
That above-and-beyond effort by the Singapore Red Cross moved MaryKate deeply. “It made me want to give back,” she says. Her chance to do just that came six years ago, when she retired as office manager for a local school district. “The day after I retired, I volunteered at the Red Cross,” she says.
She has played multiple roles at the Red Cross during those six years. She has been a supervisor of Disaster Action Teams (DAT) — the crews of volunteers that deliver Red Cross services to victims of home fires and other disasters. She has also deployed to distant disaster scenes — to floods in New York and Oklahoma, for instance, and to hurricanes in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
These days, her efforts are concentrated on an event close to home — her chapter’s role in the Red Cross Sound the Alarm (STA) campaign. STA is the rubber-meets-the-road iteration of the Red Cross Home Fire program which was launched in 2014 to reduce death and injury from fires in the home by installing smoke alarms in dwellings that lack them. Since Home Fire began, the Red Cross has installed 2.3 million alarms in 1 million homes. Those alarms have saved nearly 1,300 lives — people who escaped a home fire because a smoke alarm gave them an early warning of the danger.
Home Fire gets a jump start every May with Sound the Alarm. Teams of Red Cross volunteers spread out in neighborhoods, seeking homes that lack a working alarm. They then install alarms where needed. Along with putting the alarms in place, the Red Cross workers teach home fire safety lessons.
The goal of STA in 2022 is to install 50,000 smoke alarms nationwide — 900 of them in the Red Cross Northwest Region, which includes Washington and northern Idaho.
“I’m not a stay-at-home person,” MaryKate says. Nor, with the STA effort back in full swing after two years scaled back by COVID, does she spend much of her time these days sitting at home. She is co-coordinator of her chapter’s STA push, along with fellow volunteer Tina Piaskowski. When we talked, STA crews had located 500 Spokane-area homes in need of smoke alarms. Those crews were scheduled to take to the field the day after we talked and install the needed alarms.
Once the Spokane alarms are installed, MaryKate’s crew will lead a similar drive to safeguard homes in the Spokane suburb of Airway Heights. “We’ve already gotten the word out in Airways Heights and they will be canvassing there next,” MaryKate says.
It is obvious what the Red Cross gains from having MaryKate Hamilton as a volunteer — a committed worker who brings both skill and enthusiasm to the job. Ryan Rodin, executive director of MaryKate’s Greater Inland Northwest Chapter, describes her as “an awesome volunteer.” He expands on that, saying, “She has been instrumental in helping plan our Spokane and Airway Heights Sound-the-Alarm events.”
In turn, we asked MaryKate what she gained from her service as a Red Cross volunteer. “It is very rewarding,” she says. “It has given me a sense of purpose.” Would she recommend becoming a Red Cross volunteer to others? “Absolutely,” she says. ”You are truly helping people when they need help the most.”
Busy as she is with putting smoke alarms in place,, she knows she will be needed to play other roles after this year’s STA ends — after every smoke alarm is installed and every fire safety lesson is taught. There will be wildfires and storms and more, in and around Spokane or in some far distant locale. “The demand for help from the Red Cross never lets up,” she says. “There is always more to do.”