By Stefani Leeper
Union’s International Rescue and Relief Program creates opportunities for service on campus and around the world
It’s a devastating moment: watching your home burn, seeing smoke billow from a house filled with your possessions and memories. While the firefighters extinguish the flames, Union College students rekindle hope. At all hours of the day and night, students respond to calls to help with food, clothing, shelter and other necessities. Sometimes their greatest duty is to simply remind someone in the midst of trauma that they aren’t alone.
Begun by the international rescue and relief program (IRR), Union College’s Red Cross Club includes students majoring in many different fields who work with the American Red Cross to provide disaster response, prevention and training in Lincoln. During the school year, the students are on call one week out of every month.
“We might be called to do something as simple as offering hot chocolate, water, or coffee to the firefighters,” said Rick Young, IRR program director and club sponsor. “We might also be called to help displaced clients, getting them a place to stay, taking care of their pets—whatever is needed for that family to get through the crisis. We have also opened Red Cross shelters to house the displaced, and we conduct damage assessment.”
The Red Cross Club keeps its members busy during those on-call weeks. Young estimated the club averages four calls per week, but has responded to as many as 12 emergencies in a week.
An especially memorable call for Young involved a house fire. The family of six had nowhere to go. The club members tended to them, offering blankets and stuffed animals, filling out paperwork, and finding them a hotel to stay in for the next several days. On another occasion, he and the students opened a shelter for 76 victims of a tornado. “The thanks we get from the children and families when we’re there to support them is very rewarding,” Young said.
Jessica Santee, a 2017 graduate, recalled another instance in which the club responded to a local fire. “In just one day, we set up a mock shelter and aid station for some potential sponsors, then afterwards, we received a call to a fire in an apartment complex. We checked the residents to see if they were okay, chatted with them, and even made some of the elderly residents smile.”
The Red Cross Club is just one of the ways the IRR Program puts students to work in the community. The program has also made Union’s campus available as a venue for training simulations. Local professionals such as doctors, nurses, and physician assistants can renew their CPR training or federal emergency management agency (FEMA) training through the IRR Program. Other opportunities on campus include training in flood water management, special event and evacuation training exercises, all-hazard preparedness, and public information management.
IRR also works closely with the Lincoln fire and police departments, practicing skills in disaster response. In annual on-campus drills, students and first responders face simulations such as a collapsed roof or active shooter. Additionally, IRR’s EMT program works with disaster managers from Lancaster County, and canine search and rescue provide demonstrations for the students.
The bonds forged between IRR and local professionals have opened up internship and career opportunities for students at Lincoln Fire and Rescue, Lincoln Police Department, Red Cross, Lancaster County Disaster Management and Nebraska Emergency Management.
In the beginning, the purpose of the IRR program was to build missionaries. Initially led by Dr. Michael Duehrssen and Doug Tallman, the program launched in 2004 with a curriculum designed to direct students’ spirit of adventure into serving others using rescue, survival and aid techniques.
Six years ago, Young—who previously spent 32 years in law enforcement—took over the program leadership with a goal of incorporating more career opportunities to help students find paths to the jobs of their choice. A unique aspect to the major is that it’s designed to incorporate anything the student finds of interest, and it can match their passion with minors and emphases.
“When I learned about IRR and all the emphases it offered, I saw my opportunity to get the best of both worlds, as well as a unique skill set,” said Gabby Vizcarra, a senior IRR major. “I plan on going to graduate school to study medicine. My main goal is to use the skills I learned and the connections I make as a student to find more opportunities working internationally. With the skills I learn in IRR, I know I’ll be better able to help people physically, mentally and ultimately, spiritually.”
Jonatan Rojas, an IRR program alumnus, is currently finishing his second year as a medical school student at Loma Linda University. He said, “I chose IRR because of the hands-on experience I would get in patient care and international development. There have already been countless situations where I have been able to draw on something I learned or experienced with IRR to deal with a question or problem that’s come up in medical school.”
One such moment happened during his semester abroad in
Nicaragua in 2014. A mother brought Rojas her severely dehydrated three-year-old. He is certain that if his team had not been there, the child would have died.
“We were hands-on with the people every day,” said Santee of her own experience last spring in Nicaragua. “We made connections with people who needed some love and attention. That experience solidified for me my desire to serve hands-on in the local community wherever I am. The IRR program gave me those opportunities in so many ways.”