WALLA WALLA — “I’ve been a volunteer off and on since about 1980,” said local Red Cross volunteer Dixie Ferguson. “I was on staff for 10 years. It was my first job out of college; it was a recreation program overseas, Vietnam, in late 1966 and 1967, specific to war time.”
After that she worked as a social medical worker in military hospitals.
“I always wanted the humanitarian type of work. Red Cross is a great fit; it was my first job opportunity. It completely changed my life. I got to travel and meet wonderful people along the way.”
Ferguson lived in Walla Walla as a child, then went to California, where she eventually retired from a career as a state consultant for Social Services. It was somewhat nostalgic for her to return to Walla Walla about 10 years ago.
Ferguson said she’s had great experiences through her involvement in Red Cross.
“Doing this provides tremendous rewards. It doesn’t get better than that,” she said. “I serve happily.”
Now she fills a variety of roles within the local organization. She is currently serving as the veterans coordinator, working on the Veterans Legacy Project. She also is a lead for the local disaster response team, continually on-call for a month at a time.
Ferguson has been deployed to numerous local and national disasters. On a national level she’s helped those affected by Hurricanes Celia, Ike, Katrina, Irene and Sandy, as well as the Tuscaloosa tornado in 2011.
“A typical assignment is 2-3 weeks,” she said.
Volunteers can go from one disaster to another, depending on their constitution and how well they are holding up.
“It’s very exhausting work,” she said. “(Victims) are grieving losses of life and property. It’s the continual giving of yourself. You give them hope. It’s long hours, too; a typical day is about 12-13 hours.”
The volunteers live in the same physical circumstances as the locals in a disaster — just one of many people sheltered in a school gym, trailer or tent.
“With the Red Cross, the key word is flexibility,” she said.
Locally, she was called to help after the bus crash near Pendleton on Dec. 30, 2012.
“I was meeting with families of the bus victims,” she said. “Five people were sent to our hospitals — Walla Walla General and St. Mary’s. I would assess needs for lodging and find references for people from out of town. Just being there, doing social work, coming alongside them.”
Walla Walla volunteers also helped support the Tri-Cities chapter of the Red Cross, providing assistance and support after of a large apartment fire.
It’s all about a team approach and effort to help others in grief and pain, said Ferguson.
“Everybody handles it differently,” she said. “Some look so calm and in control.”
She jumped at the opportunity to participate in the Veterans Legacy Project.
“The Library of Congress Archives want to collect as many war histories of as many veterans as possible,” she said.
She’s interviewing veterans of World War II and the Korea and Vietnam wars in the Vet Center conference room. The sessions are recorded by videographer Vic Phillips, and then put on DVD. The veterans receive free copies for their families.
“The older vets now are sharing their stories, opening up often for the first time. They are an inspiration, they are heroes,” Ferguson said. “The Vietnam homecomings were tragic. To avoid attacks on the soldiers returning home they were often counseled that it would be safer for them to not wear their uniform. They are valiant war heroes.”