Bringing grace to the job

Published 10:26 pm Monday, April 25, 2011

Perhaps never in Suffolk’s history has the Red Cross been as important to the lives of as many everyday citizens as on the afternoon of April 28, 2008, when a tornado tore through parts of the city, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and uprooting countless lives in the minutes that it took to carve its path of destruction.

Before the skies even cleared over the city, the Suffolk Chapter of the American Red Cross had begun to mobilize. The skeletal staff and a larger group of trained volunteers, all led by Executive Director Faye G. Byrum, moved into action putting together the resources that rescue workers, social agencies and volunteers would need to provide help to those whose lives had been turned upside down.

In the hours after the storm passed, those Red Cross representatives were on the debris-littered streets of Suffolk providing food, lodging, clothing, mental and physical health services and clean-up supplies. By the next day, they were assessing damages and by the day after that, they were assisting individual victims, rather than just collecting supplies to be distributed.

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And with its philosophy of personal contact, the charitable organization was able to touch individuals with a spirit of healing that surely went almost as far as food and lodging in the frightening and unsure days after the storm.

Personal disasters are actually at the core of much of what the Red Cross does on a daily basis. When families are burned out of their homes, for example, Red Cross workers are some of the first on the scene, sometimes helping even as firefighters cool off the smoldering structures. Such interactions ensure that those who work for Suffolk’s Red Cross learn how to comfort and succor victims of disaster in very meaningful and profound ways.

Suffolk’s Red Cross volunteers and staff were making a name for themselves and for their organization long before the tornado swept through the city. And much of the credit for that esteem should go to Byrum, who has served as the chapter’s executive director for 37 years. She has ensured that folks in Suffolk have a reason to respect the organization, and she has worked hard to turn that respect into support, both monetary and physical.

Byrum modestly stated recently that Suffolk’s Red Cross will benefit from fresh ideas when it hires a new leader after she retires at the end of June. “Somebody did (the job) before me, and somebody will do it after,” she said.

And she’s right. But we struggle to imagine the job done with as much grace as she has brought to it for the past 37 years. She will truly be missed.