Constable: Meet the Red Cross volunteers who came to Schaumburg residents' aid after fire
As a co-owner of the family business run with his brother and a couple of cousins, Tony Blumberg is ready to settle into a quiet Friday night at home in Gurnee with Amy, his wife of 28 years. But a phone call wakes him at 2:35 a.m. Saturday. Five minutes later, the 50-year-old Blumberg is on the road.
"They don't get the showered version of me," Blumberg says with a chuckle.
As a volunteer Disaster Action Team manager with the American Red Cross, Blumberg is on call from 6 p.m. Friday until 4 a.m. Sunday.
"Sometimes you'll do three calls, back to back to back," says Blumberg, adding he has more time now that daughter Jessica, 23, and son Zach, 22, have graduated from college and are on their own.
On this early Saturday morning, he needs to stop by the Gurnee facility and pick up the Red Cross vehicle loaded with water, snacks and blankets. Then he drives to Schaumburg, where a fire at the Remington Place apartment complex has left a dozen or more people jarred from their sleep and waiting to see where they will end up.
"I just went because it was clear we'd need another more experienced person on-site," Blumberg says, noting he was met at the scene by Red Cross legend Rich McMahon, a 79-year-old retired military colonel and government agent who was deployed for hurricanes Katrina and Irene and has responded to more than 700 fires during his 15 years as a Red Cross volunteer.
"Giving back is the basic thing," says McMahon, who lives in River Forest, serves as a captain with Melrose Park Public Safety and still finds about 40 hours a week to volunteer with the Red Cross.
"It's a huge multifaceted operation," says Blumberg, who started volunteering four years ago.
The cause of the Schaumburg fire remains under investigation, says Schaumburg Fire Department Deputy Chief Dan Johnson. Meeting with people understandably upset because their home is on fire, Blumberg and McMahon provide more than blankets, coffee and snacks.
"Providing food and snacks is a comfort," Blumberg says. "It's a show that, 'Hey, somebody is here for me.' A blanket can be a cocoon. I've seen many people use that American Red Cross blanket when it's 90 degrees."
While the Red Cross does dole out coffee and doughnuts to first-responders, volunteers provide many services to victims of fires, floods, tornadoes and other disasters.
One resident left homeless in the Schaumburg fire speaks little English and can't understand explanations and directions from police and firefighters.
So Blumberg dials up the Red Cross language line and connects the victim with a Red Cross worker who speaks Korean.
He makes sure the snacks meet any religious, allergy or dietary needs. Blumberg and McMahon provide debit cards to help people with immediate needs, including hotel rooms, gas for their vehicles and clothes.
"They empower the volunteers and train them accordingly," says Blumberg, who teaches a class for new volunteers.
Tanya Bryant, a 55-year-old resident who had to stay in a hotel because of smoke damage to her apartment, refers to the volunteers by their first names as if they are friends.
"Thank God for the Red Cross," she says.
Blumberg says he sometimes forms a bond with people he helps.
"They share their life stories with me. They hug me. They cry," he says. "It's a privilege. Many times, people (who are victims) become Red Cross volunteers or certainly donors."
Volunteers make up about 90 percent of the charity's workforce.
The American Red Cross of Chicago & Northern Illinois uses nearly 2,000 active volunteers across 21 counties, says communication manager Holly Baker.
Those who volunteer recorded nearly 90,000 hours last year, not including time spent at disasters in other areas of the nation.
"It's very rewarding," says Blumberg, who returns from his Saturday morning fire duties in time to meet a friend for bagels and a game of gin after spending the previous six hours helping fire victims. "But I do like a good nap."