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Everyday Evangelist: Red Cross volunteer “pays it forward”

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Stuart Press, far right, and other Red Cross disaster team volunteers participate in a disaster training exercise held at Greater Cincinnati International Airport. (Courtesy Photo)

By Lisa Biedenbach
For The Catholic Telegraph

Every Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., Red Cross volunteer Stuart Press prays, “Lord, keep your people safe and help people to not do reckless things.” This little prayer, he believes, helps reduce calls for help from people in crisis during the 12-hour shift he works weekly for the Red Cross.

For more than 14 years, Stuart has volunteered for the Greater Cincinnati-Dayton Region of the Red Cross and for the last five years as a member of the Red Cross National Disaster Team. He responds to local, regional, and national disasters and provides emergency communications and human services to Red Cross teams and other professional and volunteer emergency workers, as well as to victims of floods, hurricanes, fires, and other crises. As a Hamilton County Wednesday Night Team Leader and a Disaster Services Technology manager, Stuart ensures that emergency workers can communicate to each other and to local and national disaster organizations and that equipment such as radios and computers work properly at all times and under adverse conditions and that temporary internet and phone connections are established as soon as possible after disaster strikes.

Stuart’s talent for making things work and for being prepared began in childhood, when he learned basic life skills and survival skills as a Boy Scout. His work career that includes four years as a U.S. Air Force aircraft mechanic and more than 28 years as a computer technical system analyst for the City of Cincinnati also has contributed to skills welcomed by the Red Cross.

“Scouting,” he says, “opened doors to photography and ham radio operation, both hobbies that serve me well now with the Red Cross. My expertise as a ham radio operator allows me to supply immediate communications in the disaster field and get vital information to Red Cross headquarters.”

When a tornado hit Moscow, Ohio, in 2012, Stuart recalls that cell phones would not work, but he was able to set up instant communications via ham radio for the first 24 to 36 hours. The local Cincinnati Red Cross chapter is fortunate, he says, to count ham radio operators as part of its volunteer force—something that not all chapters have.

In the past five years he has worked on disaster teams that served in New York City and Denver plus Fargo, N.D., and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “Most of the time, a volunteer has 24 to 36 hours to get to the job site. For Hurricane Sandy, I traveled three different times for three weeks at a time to the East Coast. It was one of the biggest operations staffed by Red Cross volunteers. A unique challenge of that disaster was devising a strategy to tend to residents in high-rises who were stranded in buildings that had no electrical systems and no way to get water, food, and medical treatment. We used 12 trucks to provide food to one high-rise when normally one truck will serve 100 people. During my first days at Hurricane Sandy sites, I made sure that all trucks had workable radios, which was not an easy task because of the many tunnels in which our radio antennae were often sheared off during travel to a site.”

Besides providing disaster relief on a national level, Stuart is often called in the middle of the night to pass out coffee and sandwiches to local police and fire emergency workers as well as tend to immediate relief for disaster victims who need shelter, food, and clothing. “I’ve been trained to assess situations and help people with paperwork so that they can receive benefits and get what they need to survive for the next few days,” he says.

Stuart’s voluntarism, he admits, comes naturally from his parents who taught him to “give back because you always will get more than you can give.” A member of St. Boniface Church in Northside for more than 51 years, Stuart is a server, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, Mass coordinator, and information technology adviser for the parish. He also brings Communion to patients in Christ Hospital.

“I have felt a responsibility to ‘pay it forward’ and help others ever since I was a high school senior and my father suffered a heart attack and could not work for four months. A parish friend gave me a job in her family-owned business, making sure I got 40 hours a week. When I went to college, this woman tutored me in accounting. I wanted to repay her for what she gave me, so when she asked me to help her at church, I found a way to fulfill that request,” he says.

Dealing with serious situations and tragedies can take its toll emotionally and spiritually, but Stuart says he stays grounded by “trusting in God to keep me safe and my wife, children, and grandchildren safe while I am away. I ask God to give me the compassion to deal with the tragedies I face. After spending several months working with victims of Hurricane Sandy, I count my blessings and thank God.”

Stuart enjoys his work with the Red Cross, knowing that he is “doing something positive that helps me be a better person. Additionally, my national Red Cross work keeps me up to date with changes in technology. God has blessed me, so in turn I try to be a blessing to others.”

This Everyday Evangelist feature originally appeared in the January 2014 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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