Neighbors helping neighbors
Sitting on the living room floor of 805 Joan Terrace is a map of the United States littered with Red Cross pins. The pins are tacked to the states where volunteers have served. Wyoming’s has a cowboy on it; one from Transylvania County, N.C. is shaped like a bat.
For Bill Martin, each of the pins represents a memory, a person with whom he served. Whenever he arrived on the scene of a disaster relief effort, there was always an immediate bond forged between volunteers. It’s the kind of bond those who serve in the military share, he said.
“The dedication I have seen from fellow volunteers is always memorable, and almost overwhelming,” he said. “It’s truly the volunteers that are the heart of the Red Cross.”
This year, Martin, 66, is retiring as a Red Cross volunteer, leaving behind the organization that he has served for 35 years. The Central Iowa chapter of the Red Cross will present Martin with a volunteer service award in Des Moines Tuesday.
Martin has worked disaster relief, serving as a public affairs officer in areas throughout the country and overseas. He served in Palm Bay, Fla. during a series of floods in 1996.
He helped provide shelter and food to Katrina victims in San Antonio, Texas and assisted the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office when a train derailed, spilling a shipment of potatoes that – having been coated in spilled fuel – caught fire.
Steve Hoffman, chair of the local Red Cross board, said Martin is passionate about the Red Cross’s mission. Replacing his wealth of experience will prove difficult. Having worked as a volunteer and in administration, Martin has done it all, he said.
Martin is a retired English teacher, but while on disaster response, he said he never had time to read favorites like “The Catcher in the Rye.” He spent most of his reading time poring over the local news, bringing himself up to speed on how the disaster was affecting the locals. It was his job to deal with the media.
“Sometimes I would get people asking me how many people died,” he said. “I don’t answer those types of questions. That is not my place. I can tell you how many meals we served.”
He said he will always remember the culture of the volunteer barracks. It was almost like a society unto itself, and each region brought with it an exciting culture. He remembers the food the most; some people had food allergies, and some needed other special considerations like special medicine. The Red Cross even had to accommodate some people’s pets. People from all walks of life – truck drivers, doctors, cooks – volunteer for the Red Cross. It’s what makes volunteering so rewarding, he said.
The Marshalltown resident and Eagle Scout said he has learned a lot in 35 years, but that he has no doubt that the volunteers on the Red Cross staff can provide high-quality care in his absence. The volunteers he has worked with know how to stay focused but still manage to stay light-hearted. One of those volunteers is Mary Dooley. She said Martin brings those qualities out of those with which he works.
“That focus on people is one of the strongest things Bill has passed along to our chapter over the years,” she said. “He has helped people have fun in what they are doing, bring a smile to someone’s face when some things are pretty bleak, bring a little bit of light and sunshine to their day. Bill has that wonderful balance.”
In addition to being the former executive director of the Iowa River chapter of the Red Cross, Dooley also worked closely with Martin during his tenure as a volunteer and recently returned to Marshalltown after providing disaster relief to victims of the F5 tornado that struck Moore, Okla. last month.
The two have known each other for more than 20 years. Each called the other a “mentor.”
Dooley said she still remembers when she first saw how valuable Martin was to the Red Cross. It was 1993, and floods had hit Tama County, which wasn’t yet part of the Iowa River chapter. She was still new to the Red Cross, but remembers the impact he had.
“Bill knew just what to do,” she said. “He was very much attuned to people’s needs there. That was probably the first time I saw how valuable his experience and skills were. From then on, we have relied on Bill a lot in a lot of different ways.”
As a former counselor, Martin has great storytelling skills and great listening skills, Dooley said. It what makes him a great spokesperson.
Martin said his philosophy on being a Red Cross volunteer has always been “neighbors helping neighbors, whether near or far.” Sometimes, he said asking others to continue giving when they had already given so much was difficult. But, when he was a liaison for five Red Cross chapters, asking was part of his job. He recalls asking McIlhenny Co., makers of Tabasco sauce, for money for hurricane relief. The company had already given $200,000 to assist with efforts from Hurricane Katrina.
“I gulped,” Martin said. “They had already given so much and suffered so much All the disasters I have worked on, my response, my initial response, is a gulp, a sigh and a tear. Then we get to work.”
McIlhenny Co. ended up giving another $50,000.
With retirement from the Red Cross under his belt, Martin said he will enjoy spending time with his children, all of whom are in their mid-30s, and he plans to travel. When he’s not doing that, he said he can just relax and watch the Discovery or History channels or research genealogy on ancestry.com. Or maybe he can finally get some reading done.