By William K. Alcorn
From the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to Hurricane Katrina to house fires down the street, local American Red Cross volunteers help provide disaster relief — an oasis of shelter, food and security — for victims in the resulting chaos.
As second responders, Red Cross volunteers like Steven J. Ilko of Boardman and Furman Alden Sr. of Warren come in on the heels of police and fire and ambulance and other first responders to provide whatever is needed next: food and blankets and water delivered in a truck driven by Alden; or Ilko, a licensed clinical counselor.
Alden and Ilko are among some 200 active volunteers for the American Red Cross of the Mahoning Valley, which serves Mahoning and Trumbull counties, said Karen Conklin, director.
“We are a volunteer organization that has an unfunded mandate from Congress to respond to disasters, but we receive no government funding,” said Conklin of Liberty.
The local Red Cross does receive great support from the United Way and foundations, but the bulk of the money comes from caring individuals.
“We have to raise every dollar we spend, and last year the budget was about $500,000,” Conklin said.
Conklin wants to shine a light on the work done by the organization’s volunteers this month, which is National Red Cross Month.
“As a person who loves this community, I feel so blessed to be working with volunteers who see the Red Cross as a way they can have their skills fully utilized helping people. They inspire me every day. They are like family,” she said.
Ilko, 58, and Alden, 67, are members of the local Red Cross volunteer family.
Ilko, who has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in community counseling from Youngstown State University, was a news photographer for The Vindicator, The Niles Times and The Tribune-Chronicle of Warren before becoming a counselor with Eastern Behavioral Health Center (now Turning Point Counseling) and now with Behavioral Health Associates in Austintown.
The Mahoning County Red Cross approached the Eastern staff and asked for volunteers should the need arise, said Ilko, explaining how he got involved.
“It was kind of like mixing the news junkie in me with the Red Cross,” he said.
His first call from the Red Cross put him on 24-hour notice about an hour after the second tower was hit in New York City on 9/11. Ilko ended up working in a national call-in center in Washington, D.C., fielding calls from families trying to locate members and helping people in crisis.
“It was overwhelming,” he recalled. “I was there three weeks. One of the toughest times I had was fielding two calls at the same time from people who were suicidal. We did short-term crisis counseling and then referred callers to other help.”
Ilko also was deployed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and became the supervisor of eight shelters with 3,000 people in Jackson County, Miss.
“We tried to develop a sense of community in the shelters and enlist people to help keep it clean and orderly. The resilience of people is amazing,” Ilko said.
Ilko’s mother lives in Boardman, and he has a brother and three sisters.
Alden, an Army veteran who served three tours in Vietnam, returned home and was a meat cutter for 21 years before deciding he needed something with a good retirement plan and ended up as a technician at Delphi Packard traveling the world helping to set up plants and trouble-shooting.
While he was working, he said he made good money and donated to charities, but after he retired he could no longer afford to do that, so he did something he had “always wanted to do.” He became a Red Cross volunteer.
“I’d seen all the good things the Red Cross does locally and nationally and I wanted to be a part of it,” Alden said.
As a Red Cross-trained member of a Disaster Action Team, a large part of Alden’s job is responding to local fires to offer the victims help with food and clothing and a place to stay for three nights.
Alden has also been trained for shelter work and as an emergency response vehicle driver.
When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, large areas in the Cleveland area lost electrical power, and he was deployed there as an ERV driver to deliver food to four shelters.
“I enjoy talking to people in the shelters,” he said. “There are almost always veterans there, and being a Vietnam veteran, it is easier for them to open up to someone they have something in common with.”
Alden said his favorite part of being an ERV driver is being able to offer people a meal and something to drink and see their smiles.
“It’s a good feeling inside to know you can help someone,” Alden said.
Alden and his wife, Cheryl, who volunteers with GRIN — Golden Retrievers in Need — based in Cleveland, have seven children and live in Warren. They are members of New Hope Free Methodist Church in Warren, and he is a member of VFW Post 3332 in Newton Falls.
There are many reasons to become a Red Cross volunteer, Conklin said.
There is free training and a wonderful sense of doing something great for people, she said.
Volunteers can learn how to set up and cook for a shelter and how to drive a big vehicle, and they can volunteer locally or outside the area.
A Red Cross Disaster Action Team volunteer learns CPR and first aid and about blood-borne pathogens, giving them the training to make their homes and communities safer, Conklin added.