Even though Mary Hammett Hamilton’s life is fraught with disasters, from everyday fires to the Oklahoma City bombing to Hurricane Katrina, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
In 2005, Hamilton relocated from Orlando, Fla., where she was the development officer for the Southeast Service Area of the American Red Cross, to Jackson, to take over as CEO of the Central Mississippi Chapter. A graduate of Northeastern State University, Hamilton directed annual giving and alumni activities at Rogers State University in Oklahoma for six years before joining the Red Cross in 1993. Recently, the Mississippi Business Journal asked Hamilton about the organization’s role in disaster relief efforts and its local year-round mission.
Mississippi Business Journal: The American Red Cross is well known for its response to major disasters, but few people understand the organization’s 365-day mission. Broadly, what is that mission?
Mary Hamilton: The American Red Cross, a humanitarian organization led by volunteers, guided by its congressional charter and the fundamental principles of the International Red Cross Movement, provides relief to victims of disasters and helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.
The Red Cross stands ready to respond to any situation where people need help after experiencing a natural or man-made disaster. Upon notification, the Red Cross will send representatives to offer immediate financial assistance to the victims. This allows the families to buy food, clothes, medicines, and other basic needs that are necessary to allow them to recover quickly from their ordeal.
MBJ: Last year, the Central Mississippi Chapter responded to 398 fires. What unique challenges concerning fires are represented in the metro area, and what assistance does the Red Cross provide to recovery victims?
MH: Like most urban areas, there is a concentration of people living in single and multi-family housing, often where the possibilities of electrical wiring problems are more likely to occur. More people are using electric heaters in the wintertime. Many fires start in the kitchen. If these and other practices are not carefully monitored by responsible adults or youths, then fires can occur.
Red Cross volunteers help ensure that a family’s basic emergency needs are met. The extent of service is determined on a case-by-case basis. Part of our casework is to help our clients get on the road to recovery as quickly as possible. Disaster mental health workers we’ve trained work with some of our clients to sort through the grief they are facing from their loss. As you might guess, it’s very traumatic to lose everything you own.
MBJ: The Red Cross represents the only method for military families to communicate the need for their soldier to return home because of a family emergency. Can you share more with us about this important role?
MH: The Red Cross has had a long-standing agreement with the military to facilitate emergency communications from members of families stateside to soldiers deployed overseas. Generally, the Red Cross is contacted by either a family member or some other person when there is an important occurrence (such as a death, a birth or a critically ill relative) and a message needs to reach a member of the Armed Forces overseas.
The role of the Red Cross is to verify the emergency, contact the military to initiate the communication channel and facilitate the message to the family member’s commanding officer, who determines whether or not to send the soldier home. In some emergency situations, the Red Cross provides financial assistance to the families, which is reimbursed by the Armed Forces at a later date. We also provide pre-deployment programs for the families, our “Get to Know Us Before You Need Us” presentations, which inform the families on how to access Red Cross help when the need arises.
MBJ: The Red Cross relies primarily on volunteers. How many do you have now, how many do you typically train annually, and what are some of the more successful measures you have taken to recruit volunteers?
MH: We had some 407 volunteers at the end of our last fiscal year. Typically, we train more that 350 people each year in various classes designed to prepare them for disaster calls. We normally find that our more experienced volunteers are some of the best trainers, so we use them to teach others the courses required to provide service. These include Family Services, Mass Care, Shelter Operations, Logistics and other classes designed to give us the best trained volunteers to serve others in their time of need. We try to keep volunteers engaged all year working with families who are affected by house fires, not just during the larger “disaster” situations.
MBJ: How do you determine Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) members?
MH: Generally, these are the most experienced, best-trained volunteers, although we try to send new volunteers with the more experienced as often as possible.
MBJ: How does the Red Cross coordinate those teams, and what is each team member’s responsibility?
MH: We have a core group of trained volunteers who are on a rotating call list that respond throughout our nine-county jurisdiction. We have monthly meetings to assign the DAT calendar and to also discuss changes in procedures, training opportunities and other items of interest. Several times a year, we invite partner agencies and companies like The National Weather Service to present to our group.
MBJ: Though congressionally mandated, the Red Cross is not federally-funded. How do you primarily raise funds to cover Red Cross operational expenses?
MH: Many people think we are funded by the government or receive most of our funds from United Way. A very, very small portion of our budget (less than 2% of our expenses) comes from United Way. We solicit funds locally from individuals, businesses large and small and corporate and private foundations. Our board members have the primary responsibility for supporting the chapter’s work financially and by helping raise sufficient funds each year to enable the chapter to fulfill its service mission. This is done by asking the community to support the work of their Red Cross through direct mail requests, grant applications and local area churches. We look for corporations for support as well as individuals throughout our service area.
MBJ: What can the business community do to help with your efforts?
MH: The business community can help support the mission of the Red Cross in a number of ways:
• Make a financial commitment each year to help the Central Mississippi Chapter.
• Enroll employees in our safety classes, with classes held at the chapter office or on-site at the business.
• Make a plan for your employees and business assets in case of fire, storms or other disasters that may occur.
• Obtain Red Cross emergency kits in sufficient numbers for your company and its employees.
• Stay informed to the needs of families and individuals in Central Mississippi in terms of safety issues
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com..