Local Southampton resident, John Willetts, recently returned from a Red Cross mission to Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario.
Willetts comes from a family of volunteers. His mother was a nurse in England during WWII and his aunt was a Red Cross Volunteer.
“Being a volunteer is important, interesting and meaningful,” says Willetts. “The work that volunteers do impacts those around them in a very real way. The Red Cross training is excellent and their response is immediate.” Having been in the north of Canada and as a bush pilot, Willetts was familiar with the environment.
Kashechewan of the Cree First Nation, is located near James Bay in Northern Ontario on the north shore of the Albany River.
Willetts was deployed as a volunteer member of the Red Cross Emergency Response Team on June 12th, along with 14 others, and who were first on the ground for a hardship deployment to Kashechewan. The group was part of a deployment that also included 15 Rangers and 10 Canadian Forces regular troops. The team first flew from Toronto to Timmins where they received a briefing on what to expect and, from Timmins, they flew by charter plane to Kashechewan.
The full lockdown due to the high number of COVID-19 cases impacted staffing of essential services and supports and resulted in the closure of the Northern Store, the only source of goods in the community.
With a population of 1800 people, there were 313 cases or one in six affected by the virus and, as of June 24th, there were 73 cases.
The Red Cross deployment evolved into the organization of donated food delivery and materials so that residents could isolate in their homes, wellness checks to support the mental health of residents and help to identify those in need of assistance working with the Armed Forces and under the direction of Mushkegowuk Council.
There were two to three planeloads of supplies arriving every day.
“We started the distribution center in the high-school gym,” said Willetts, “but then we moved to the community arena as we outgrew the space.”
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Among the team was a trauma-physical surgeon, infectious disease specialist, a water, sewage and safety expert, a psychologist, a social worker, a public health nurse and a Site Response Manager and all have psychological first aid training.
Willets says that he did the “basic stuff” such as warehouse set-up, filling emergency food hampers and emergency needs requests and acting as a driver for emergency coordinators.
During the time of the deployment, that extended to June 26th, everyone was required to wear a three to four piece PPE (personal protective equipment)s that included a gown, gloves, mask and face-shield. Volunteers who agreed to the deployment were committed to two weeks and could not leave except by special charter as Kashechewan is a fly-in community only.
Every activity and program carried out by the Red Cross follows fundamental principles based on humanity, impartiality neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. The organization is a long-recognized voluntary relief movement that responds quickly in times of disasters and emergencies with local volunteers who play an integral role. The volunteers come from a wide variety of life-experiences and, therefore, can fulfill many needed jobs such as drivers to sorting food for a mobile food bank.
Although it was his first experience as a Red Cross volunteer, Willetts says he is ready for the next experience. “In the Red Cross, there is the saying that you should have a ‘ready bag’. In other words, have a bag packed and ready to go as soon as you get the call. I’m ready.”
To volunteer or donate, go to https://www.redcross.ca/