The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
Ted Parrish is the March Red Cross Volunteer of the Month. He is a complicated man. Sometimes it seems as though two voices take turns speaking with his mouth. One voice is calm, the voice of a southern gentleman who speaks in hushed tones, spreads good will, and responds to people in need. Ted’s second voice has other knowledge. It is the voice of a warrior, who speaks out in anger against injustice, who has faced death as a practical matter, and who knows the suffering in the world is as wrong and it is real.
After a career as a postal worker, Ted looked for a volunteer opportunity when he felt, “The walls of the house were beginning to close in on me.” He responded to a newspaper request for volunteers to put together comfort kits for the Mid-South Red Cross. “I had no idea what a comfort kit was,” he says. At that time, the director of Disaster Services was Terry Donald, an old friend and co-worker. When he saw Ted, Terry offered to get Ted an application to work at the Red Cross. Confused, he replied that he didn’t want a job, but Terry told him, “No, for volunteering.” Ted says, “And that’s how it got started.”
When asked what he does for the Red Cross, he laughs his signature laugh and says, “Whatever people ask of me, but I’ll start with my finest thing, the Fire Safety House. I haul it to churches, schools, community events, or businesses having family days, where we target children from the fifth grade down. We try to give them some exposure to fire safety in the home.”
He knows the effectiveness of The Fire Safety House. Once when he was traveling to New Orleans on Amtrak, a man on the train tapped him on the back and said, “Don’t I know you?” Ted replied, “I don’t think so,” and he turned back around. The man tapped him once again and said, “Don’t you work for the Red Cross?” Ted said, “Yes, I’m a volunteer.” Then the tapper said, “Man, my daughter has me practicing stop, drop, and roll every evening.” Thinking back on the exchange, Ted reflects, “I’ve always been one of those kinds of people who thought that if you can save one person, you’ve done the job.”
Ted’s life experiences are deep. He went to Vietnam as a marine, at a time when marine training included physical correction; he was once threatened by a 357 magnum pressed against his nose; he remembers egregious racial injustice; and he went to court to gain custody of his two sons, whom he then raised on his own. His younger son was killed in an automobile accident on Thanksgiving Day in 1997.
He says, he sees with “rose colored glasses” and yet only to a point. He insists that men, or women, who refuse responsibility, never reach their full potential. “I have a tendency to not bite my tongue when I see some wrong going on somewhere. I’m not one of those who can see some wrong and go ‘I didn’t see anything.’ I’ll be one who steps forward and says, ‘yes, he or she did this.’” During the West Memphis flood, Ted saw four guys in rowboats going into evacuated areas. First, he asked the guys what they were doing. Unconvinced that they were “there to help,” as they claimed, he reported what he had seen to a state trooper. When asked how he knew these guys were trouble, he answers, “This is not my first rodeo.”
He is careful, however, not to project his personal demands onto others, “Particularly with a job like this [Red Cross],” he says, “I don’t want to antagonize someone and cause them not to want to come back. I have to be very careful how I interact and make sure I put my best foot forward, and put the Red Cross in a good light.”
Ted admits to a “bad temper,” but even so, he is highly sensitive to people who are suffering: “I stepped away from our Disaster Action Team calls because, with the clients, there were too many times where (pause). There was one instance where there were some Hispanics. I didn’t know what they were saying, but I just let them cry and cry and cry, I mean all of them were crying. I asked an interpreter to try to find out what was going on. This family, a mother, father, and four children had been living with four or five other families for years while they saved their money to buy a mobile home. They just moved in three weeks ago and now they’d lost everything. Things like that . . .”
Born and raised in Memphis, Ted is the baby in a family of thirteen. “As God as my witness,” he declares, laughing his infectious laugh, “my mother was in the maternity ward so often that they gave her a job. She was a strong force in Ted’s life, a stalwart disciplinarian: “My mother demanded good behavior,’ he says, “Wherever you acted up, that’s where you got disciplined.” She is also a woman for whom he has deep respect. Ted was the one who took care of her in her final days, “I didn’t want my mother in a nursing home,” he says simply.
At times, Ted is troubled by the duality of altruism. Noting that good feelings come from helping others, he questions his motives for volunteering. He honestly admits that he sometimes feels selfish and must remind himself that he isn’t the cause a client’s distress, but part of the solution for a difficult situation. Moreover, it is okay to feel good about assisting someone in need. During a Red Cross disaster deployment in Indiana, while feeding people whose homes had been flooded, “I was coming down the road [in a Red Cross Emergency Responsive Vehicle]. People were standing out on the curb, the windows were down and I could hear them say ‘here come our angels,’” Ted recalls. He continues, “I like to have a sense of accomplishment and what better sense of accomplishment can you have than someone who just wants to hug you.” Laughing, he says, “I’m still trying to get that same feeling every time. I’m addicted.”
A mostly private man with high personal expectations and a keen insight into people, Ted has a great deal to offer the Red Cross. He could be bitter about some of his life’s particular challenges. He could despair of the suffering we create for each other, but he chooses instead to try to see the good in the world and then bit-by-bit to work to change its flaws. “I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the world,” he says, “Humans are parasites. The world has provided everything I need to survive, so I try to be the man that tries to make a difference, to give a little something back. I like to help people.”
Story credit: Kathleen Bradley/American Red Cross