Teaching Kids About Preparedness with the Pillowcase Project

By Ashley Henyan

As originally published on RedCrossChat.org

Long before I joined the Red Cross communications team, I was a Red Cross volunteer. I worked the reception desk at blood drives and brought comfort kits to patients at the VA Hospital. I enjoyed doing my part to help facilitate lifesaving blood donations, and it felt good knowing I could bring hope, sunshine and even a breath of fresh air into the lives of hospitalized veterans.


A few months into my Red Cross volunteer experience, I got wind of the Disney Pillowcase Project, a learn, practice, share curriculum aimed to arm third to fifth grade students with real-world emergency preparedness skills. Like any good Red Crosser, I took my online trainings and then completed the in-person Pillowcase Project Instructor course. I was so excited to get in front of my first classroom of students! But within days of completing my instructor certification, I accepted a paid position with the Red Cross, turning my focus to all things communications and putting my emergency preparedness teaching debut on hold.


Well, on hold for about four years…


On Feb. 6, 2019, along with my colleague, friend and fellow volunteer, Tim Suda, I assisted my very first Pillowcase Presentation for a group of fifth graders: Girl Scout Troop 15200 of the Pace Academy Lower School in Atlanta, GA. It was awesome! The students were engaged, inquisitive and even reminded me that a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter can go a long way during an emergency. We discussed the importance of talking with grown-ups at home about what to do during emergencies like home fires, tornadoes and hurricanes—and we discussed the importance of sharing the information learned with siblings, friends and neighbors.


The Pillowcase Project teaches more than practical emergency preparedness skills. It also teaches students how to cope, emotionally, with feelings that might arise before, during and after a disaster. Appropriately, we call this component of the presentation: Coping Skills—more specifically, Symbol of Strength and Breathing with ColorSymbol of Strength is exactly what it sounds like. Students visualize themselves doing an activity that makes them feel strong and confident. Then, they take an imaginary selfie of themselves feeling great, paste their selfie onto an imaginary shield, and rest assured knowing they can use their shield to feel strong, anytime they need it. The second component, Breathing with Color, is a simple meditation where participants breathe in all the good, their favorite shade of blue—and then breathe out any negative feelings they are having, visualizing the gloomy color gray leaving their minds and bodies.


As a communicator with the Red Cross, I regularly tell stories about volunteers and their involvement in disaster relief action. Rarely though, do I get to be a part of the preparedness efforts that go on behind the scenes, efforts that help people survive during and thrive after catastrophic emergencies and disasters. That’s why it felt so good to get out and help teach a Pillowcase Project Presentation—even if it was four years in the making. Plus, participating in the Breathing with Color exercise during the presentation only made the good feelings that come with volunteering even better!

Let’s face it: Football is more important than politics.

By Ashley Henyan

I am not a football fan; but my older sister, Nickole is. Today, when I shared with her the news that Condoleezza Rice was announced as a serious contender for the Cleveland Browns Head Coach job, she replied, “I would love to be a GM.”

“You would be great,” I told her.

I was speaking the truth.

During our younger days, before gender became a factor, my sister wasn’t just one of the smartest kids in school, she was also one of the toughest.  Football, gymnastics, track and field:  it didn’t matter what sport, she was always the best.

Upon graduating from high school, she accepted a partial basketball scholarship to attend The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. There, she played point guard for all four years. This helped to pay for her Doctor of Pharmacy degree–which she earned just two short months after turning 24. 

After completing her doctorate, she worked multiple clinical positions, simultaneously—then, paid off her student loans and started working her way up the corporate ladder. At age 38, she purchased her fourth investment property: a retirement condo in Naples, Florida. She paid in cash.

Now, she has completed Stanford University’s Executive Development Program and just finished a nearly three-year stint as Vice President (Pharmacy Services and Clinical Operations) for UnitedHealth Groups Optum Division, where she led a team of hundreds of nurses and pharmacists to help patients better understand and manage their health care needs.

Today, and still with UnitedHealth Group, she is responsible for maintaining quality customer service for millions of subscribers and clinicians while achieving performance targets for the healthcare giant’s clinical pharmacy products and services.

But she wants more – because she knows more than science, medicine and business. She knows sports.

When it comes to football, Nickole is a mastermind—and not just with keeping track of the top players and winning teams. She understands the business of football. She can design plays to get the worst offense past the best defense with her left hand while working the numbers for trades, long-term strategy and partnerships with her right.

My sister and other highly qualified women should be serious contenders for top jobs in professional sports—and the gender of athletes on the field should not be a factor. According to CBS News in Austin, TX, San Antonio Spurs Head Coach, Greg Popovich (who works alongside  Spurs Assistant coach, Becky Hammon) claims the only way to make real progress with creating equality for women in professional sports is to hire more women in positions of power. If this is the case, then the NBA, which has hired three women in full-time coaching positions (Jenny Boucek became the third in 2017)  since 1946, has a long way to go. So too, does the NFL. Right now, there are 32 GM’s in professional football. None are women.

The only way to induce permanent change is with steady action. So, today, I call upon all highly qualified candidates – including women – to seek out positions of power in professional sports and apply. Football is more important to most Americans than politics, anyhow. Why can’t the change start there?

In Memoriam: Chilly Willis (Henyan)

A lover of water from birth, Chilly was born on May 25, 2001 in Laurel, Maryland to Ashley Henyan and Kimberly (Panzer) Harris. Ashley and Kimberly were college best friends and roommates – who happened to live on Chillum Rd. (yes, they thought it was hilarious, too). In fact, the street’s name was so monumental, it was the sole contributing factor to Chilly’s name!

Before his first birthday, Chilly was already on the move – off to spend almost two years in the only home he would ever know with a large, fenced-in back yard. There, in Beltsville, MD, he lived with his mom Ashley and his two roommates: Denise Reitan and Mark Murray. He spent his days waiting for UPS, FedEx and USPS to arrive and his nights watching American Idol and Will and Grace with his childhood best friend, Steve Vigilante.

Chilly, age 1, with snorkel.

With a mother who refused to settle, Chilly was soon on the move again, this time to New York state, for a six-month stay with his soon to be father, Don DeLeva. His time in New York was temporary, as Ashley and Don had plans to move to South Florida – where they ended up putting down roots right across the street from beach. Now, Chilly had his very own pool!

Often, when one thinks of South Florida, especially a condo by the beach, retired couples with walkers and early-bird-specials come to mind. This was not the case for Chilly. He enjoyed hosting birthday and holiday get togethers at his pool – joining guests like Heidi Davis, Brooke Franzman and Brandon Eller for as much swimming and drinks as his little heart desired. He also braved many dangerous hurricanes, like Hurricane Katrina. These were the days of fun and friends and Chilly still holds the record for the only dog to visit every bar on Duval Street in Key West—in a single night!

After a few years in Los Angeles, Chilly had perfected the perfect “head-shot pose!”

By 2008, Chilly found himself on a plane to Los Angeles, with his now single mom. Over their more than nine years in LA, Chilly lived like a star! His tenth birthday party was held at the Downtown Standard Hotel—with live entertainment courtesy of Jason Lee Bruns and John Twiford (and of course, a roof-top pool!) And, when he wasn’t shopping in Beverly Hills, he often hiked in the canyons, right alongside A-listers and their furry friends.  In accordance with living his best LA-life, weekend trips to Las Vegas became not only common, but a necessity!

With his mom making a career change and heading to graduate school, Chilly went bravely on his own, back to Maryland – to Annapolis this time – to live with his loving Aunt Nickole, Uncle Jason and canine cousins, Austin and London Mitchell. With his interim-family, Chilly enjoyed frequent getaways to his grandparents’ home on Keuka Lake. There, he spent warm summer days and star-filled nights wine-tasting, boating and jumping in the lake to chase local ducks.

In July 2018, after spending the previous two years back with Ashley in California, Chilly moved to Atlanta.

Chilly, age 17, at his home in Atlanta, GA.

Georgia would be his fifth and final state of residence.

Chilly passed away on November 15, 2018 at the People’s Pets Veterinary Hospital – in Tucker, GA.  He was 17.5 years old.

He was a frequent traveler (first-class, all the way), a lover of drive-thru restaurants, a fanatic for carrots, a talented acrobat and for his entire life, he strived to speak English words like “pork-chop,” “spaghetti,” and “Mom!”

Before his death, he had already inspired a Children’s book series, Chilly and London Go to School, a short-animated film, Chilly Harris: Red Cross Volunteer, and the non-fiction, published piece (The Penmen Press, 2017), “My Editing Role Model.”

Chilly is survived by two canine cousins, London Mitchell and Mondi Henyan and upon his passing, countless friends and family in Africa, South American and the Continental U.S. had to be notified, including: Pete Henyan, Abi Henyan, Penny Henyan, Nnana Mangadi, Athena Henyan, Jojo Henyan, Doug Henyan, Joann Henyan, Peg Webb, Todd Webb, Lindsay Webb, Mike Webb, Jamie Meteer, Deepak Ramapriyan, Kevin Burke, Amber Weaver, John Carter, Phillip Raya, Jen Phillips and Trey Harris.

Adults with Disabilities Give Back as Red Cross Volunteers

By Ashley Henyan

Photo By Federica Brecha


As originally published on http://redcrosslatalks.org/


MaryRose, Hannah, Danielle and Sean have two things in common—they are all adults living with a disability and they are all Red Cross volunteers.


I had the pleasure of accompanying this team of four on Tuesday, March 13, as they made their regular rounds through the Los Angeles VA Hospital, distributing comfort kits to hospitalized veterans and bringing a smile to every visible face around.

Their work as Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and Veterans volunteers is made possible through one of the Red Cross’ partner organizationsPathPoint, a nonprofit that educates and trains adults living with disabilities to obtain full-time employment and thrive as full-functioning, contributing members of society.


Founded in 1964, PathPoint believes that all individuals with disabilities and/or disadvantages can achieve self-sufficiency and dignity. With this philosophy, they have become leaders in the fields of employment, community access and residential and behavioral health services—all while arming participants with the skills and experience necessary to land a full-time job.

As we walked from floor to floor and pod to pod, I got to learn some of the reasons why Hannah, age 31, volunteers with the Red Cross. She is on her way to landing a position in operations, communications, or in the food services industry. Through PathPoint, she has interned (as she called it) in the media departments at hospitals and universities, with the Red Cross and in corporate cafeterias. “Helping the service men and women is my favorite though,” Hannah told me, “some of my relatives were in the military and it makes me feel good to help.” 


I also had the pleasure of speaking with Sean, whose goals through the PathPoint program are quite different than Hannah’s. Sean is at a point in his life where gaining experience to land a new job is no longer a priority. However, he specifically joined PathPoint to become a Red Cross Veteran’s Hospital Volunteer. “My Grandfather was in World War II, Sean said. “He was stationed over the Pacific and I want to help people who served in wars, like him.”


Rick Carberry works at PathPoint and helps to manage the group’s duties at the VA Hospital. Though MaryRose, Hannah, Danielle and Sean can easily perform their Red Cross volunteer work unsupervised, Rick came along on Tuesday, specifically to speak with us for this article. While in the middle of telling me how much pride the entire PathPoint organization takes in their partnership with Red Cross Services to the Armed Forces and Veterans, Rick’s phone rang. It was a former participant of the PathPoint program and he was calling with great news—he had just been hired at Ralph’s Supermarket! Rick passed his phone around so that the group could offer congratulatory words to their former teammate, then said, “It is my hope that the skills learned as Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and Veterans volunteers will springboard every PathPoint participant toward living full lives, complete with a satisfying career.”

View more of Americorps Member, Federica Brecha’s photos, on FLICKR!

My Editing Role Model

Today I took my dog Chilly, a white miniature poodle, to a brand new groomer named Sally. After I dropped him off I ran two blocks down the street to pick up a prescription from CVS. I was expecting to wait at least an hour and thought I’d get one errand done in the interim. Less than 20 minutes later, when I returned to Sally’s shop, Chilly was already finished! I laughed, because staring at me along with him through the front window was an identical dog. Well, identical except for one big difference. This dog was two feet taller than Chilly! I even joked with the cashier, stating, “I thought for a moment you transformed him into a giant!” Chilly 2012

On our walk back home I got to thinking about how much a great editor is like a great dog groomer. Sometimes a literary work requires a full bath, a haircut and a nail trim.  Sometimes it only needs a bath and a sanitary trim. And sometimes, the only thing necessary is a quick trim of the nails.  A great editor must be able to recognize what needs to cleaned up or trimmed down, and make all the necessary adjustments while keeping the integrity of the original work. No one wants their work of art going in a miniature poodle and coming out a standard poodle!

Perhaps, equally important as keeping the integrity of a work is the way an editor communicates with their clients. Even worse than a picking up a bigger dog would be picking up a distressed or psychologically traumatized dog, right!? When I arrived to pick up Chilly today he was as happy as he could be.  I knew Sally had treated him kindly. And just like her, an editor must be kind and compassionate every time they interact with their clients.

A great editor must also have a keen intuitive sense. Chilly has always had very long quicks in his nails. In the past most groomers have been afraid to cut them. But today, when we got home, I discovered Sally actually cut his nails. “Wow,” I thought, “this Sally is a real find! She must know how to trust her gut. We’re definitely going back to see her.”

Just like Sally the dog groomer, as an editor I want to always deliver feedback in a timely and efficient manner. I want to be able to communicate with clients in a kind and compassionate way. And above all, I want to be able to trust my intuition to know when to take risks, and when to back off.

No money? No problem. There are other ways to help!


Photo by Faustin Tuyambaze

I’ve never met Kori Nelson or Paul Leblanc in person. But, thanks to the power of the internet, I recently introduced them to each other.  Now, Paul is financing Kori’s trip from Minnesota to New Hampshire, so that she can attend her college graduation ceremony at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)—  the same college where Paul just happens to be the President!

I’m also a student at SNHU, which is how I know Kori. We met this past fall at SNHU’s online student center (SNHU Connect) when we were inducted into the National Society of Leadership and Success. Even though she lives in Menahga, Minnesota and I live in Los Angeles, California, we became fast friends.  We even made a point to skype at least once a month, and the more I learned about Kori, the more I thought she was great. Not only was she a full- time student, but she was also a hard-working mom of two with aspirations to help victims of domestic abuse. Despite challenges with family scheduling, job changes and the weather (look on the map, Menahga is basically at the North Pole!) she always remained optimistic and determined to succeed.

That’s why, the moment I heard she needed help financing her family’s trip to SNHU (so that her husband and children could be there as she accepted her diploma), I wanted to help.

Kori had set up a crowd funding campaign on You Caring, to raise the $500 her family needed for the trip. I went to the site. The more I read her family’s story the more I wanted to write a check to cover the entire amount. Unfortunately, as a student, I couldn’t afford to do that. But, as a writer, a social media marketing manager and a friend, I knew exactly how I could help.

First, I re-wrote her story; cleaned it up a bit to make sure it could appeal to any potential donor. Then, I got on Twitter  and Linkedin to share her story with my connections and followers. As I was scrolling through my list, I came across Dr. Paul LebBanc, the President of SNHU.

I first met Paul online too, when he retweeted an article I wrote for Borgen Magazine about SNHU’s College for America’s online learning program for refugees living at the Kiziba Refugee Camp, in Kigali, Rwanda. At the time, I had scrolled through his Twitter feed. I remember feeling that he was more than just a figure head of a President; that he genuinely cared about his students and would probably do anything to help them suceed. It seemed like Paul was one of us. He even accepted my invitation to connect on Linkedin!  So, with a little wishful thinking, I sent him a message with a link to Kori’s You Caring campaign and a note asking him to, “Please help spread the word!” Almost instantly he wrote back, saying that he “took care of the expenses,” because he was a “sucker for cute kid pics and SNHU students.” Although, I still suspect it was a little more than that; that perhaps, his generosity had something to do with good-old-fashioned human kindness.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the internet, especially social media, can inspire people to do good things. This is because much of what we hear and read on the subject is filtered through a very negative light. But, good things do come from a connected world. In fact, stories of kindness are popping up all over the news. This week, on NBC News, a hardworking father of two couldn’t afford to help his friend Shajuana (a cashier at his favorite Popeyes) make her $1500 tuition payment for nursing school. But, he started a crowd funding campaign to find others who could. Last checked, Shajuana’s fund  was over $14,000.  And, this South Carolina teacher raised $80,000 on Go Fund Me to buy every child in her a school a brand new bike!

Even large-scale non-profit organizations understand that not everyone can afford to fork over $100 for every cause they care about. Organizations like the American Red Cross accept vehicle donations, volunteer time and of course, blood donations— giving everyone the opportunity to help those in need.

As for Kori and Paul, he’s asked her to sit on the “right side” of the stage during graduation. This way, when she walks across the stage to accept her diploma in May, he will be the one who hands it to her. And, although she hasn’t said so, I suspect Paul may get a huge hug in return!

Journalism, Literature, Society and Identity


Photo by Nitish Meena

While we can generally agree that realism fundamentally changed the way journalism as a writing form was practiced, clearly the lines that separate journalism, from non-fiction, from fiction have all but disappeared. There are so many media outlets today that, even within the genre of journalism, a distinction of validity generally must occur. In fact, recently, Special Counsel to the President of the United States, Kellyanne Conway, was interviewed on the same topic by TMZ, MSNBC, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. Do all three of these media outlets contain the same merit? Perhaps the bigger question here is, does it even matter? Isn’t information, just information? Or, is journalism the basis for the propaganda that we, as Americans, must inevitably absorb?  And, does journalistic propaganda provide identity for society?

Furthermore, as all journalism is duplicated, paraphrased, and re-circulated across media platforms, are we left with any validity— regardless of if literary elements were contained in the original piece? Or, does every slightly altered re-publication of journalistic content lose its place in the “journalism genre?”  If so, then, where is the threshold!? Where does journalism become non-fiction, and non-fiction become fiction? Perhaps most perplexing: since all media is, at the very minimum unconsciously, influenced by every writer or producer’s ideology, does pure non-fiction even exist?

While Riis’ work, How the Other Half Lives, contains key elements that could easily send this journalistic piece over the threshold toward the non-fiction realm, there is one essential element missing that keeps it from crossing into realistic fiction. That element is character. To highlight these differences and to help define journalism, non-fiction and fiction, we can compare Riis’ journalistic work with the non-fiction of Ernest Hemingway and the fiction of Mark Twain.

In How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis inserts his opinion using a first person narrative voice. This style makes his journalism appear literary. Riis writes, “I know of only one easier way, but, so far as I am informed, it has never been introduced in this country. It used to be practiced, if report spoke truly, in certain old-country towns” (Riis). Similarly, he highlights his observations of people that live in the tenements with a highly stylized use of dialect, “S’ppose your wifee bad, you no lickee her?” he asked, as if there could be no appeal from such a common-sense proposition as that…” (Riis). This technique also makes his journalism appear literary. In fact, it is very similar to the realistic style of dialect used by Mark Twain in, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Po’ little Lizabeth! po’ little Johnny! it’s might hard; I spec’ I ain’t ever gwyne to see you no mo’, no mo’!” (Twain). Finally, Riis uses a dramatic literary technique called “an aside,” in which the narrator speaks directly to the audience:

“What is truth?” to attempt to weary the reader by dragging him with me over that sterile and unprofitable ground. Nor are these pages the place for such a discussion. In it, let me confess it at once and have done with it, I should be like the blind leading the blind; between the real and apparent poverty, the hidden hoards and the unhesitating mendacity of these people, where they conceive their interests to be concerned in one way or another, the reader and I would fall together into the ditch of doubt and conjecture in which I have found company before” (Riis).

The missing element in Riis’ work that keeps his journalism non-fiction, is the omission or lack of character. Even his narrative voice appears to have none. In fact, his narrative style seems as if he is watching B-roll footage for days, and narrating right along with every frame. Whereas, in Hemingway’s work of non-fiction, “Camping Out,” even his informal main character, “He,” contains some sort of “star quality.”  Hemingway writes, “The call of the wild may be all right, but it’s a dog’s life. He’s heard the call of the tame with both ears. Waiter, bring him an order of milk toast” (Hemingway). I imagine Riis’ journalistic depiction of a similar scene would read more along the lines of, “Nature has set in and the Jew has no choice but to accept the hard facts of life. There is no milk available this morning to drink with the breakfast toast.” However, both authors infer economic realities in very similar ways. Riis writes, “He opened a sort of breakfast shop for the idle and unemployed in the region of Washington Square, offering to all who had no money a cup of coffee and a roll for nothing. (Riis). And Hemingway, “A pan of fried trout can’t be bettered and they don’t cost any more than ever. But there is a good and bad way of frying them” (Hemingway). Making it seemingly harder to differentiate between the two respective genres.

All this said, it is important to understand the cultural impact inherent from society’s willingness to accept journalism as truth. What shapes reality when journalism is coming in from so many different outlets?  More importantly, how does this reality impact society? In other words, does society form its own identity or, is the identity of society determined from the influence of media (journalism, non-fiction and fiction)?

Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology sparks a debate as to the multitude and magnitude of ways by which people absorb their assumptions from media. His theory provides that individuals’ identities stem from views placed upon us by culture (society). And, in 1987, John Fisk provided examples as to how modern television journalism enhances Althusser’s theory.“These meanings are not only meanings of social experience, but also meanings of self, that is constructions of social identity, that enable people living in industrial capitalist societies to make sense of themselves and their social relations. Meanings of experience and meanings of the subject (or self) who has that experience are finally party of the same cultural process” (Fiske).

This, taken into account with the (now expected) repetitive exposure to all media and, we are left to wonder if we are wasting our time seeking to define journalism. Instead, should we seek to define the identity of the American Media Entity where, “the repeated use… makes “America” into a living, breathing body (like the one “we” inhabit) …” (Fiske).  The latter may help to identify what roll, if any, writers have in shaping “reality.”


Fiske, John. “Culture, Ideology, Interpellation.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd Edittion. 1998. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest.“Camping Out.” http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/campinghemingway.htm. 1920. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. 1890. http://www.authentichistory.com/1898-1913/2-progressivism/2-riis/index.html Accessed 5 Feb 2017.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/76. EBOOK #76. Released 20 Aug. 2006. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.

Now is a Good Time to Wake Up

Photo by Maddi Robinson

Photo by Maddi Robinson

Published on Dec 28th 2016 in the Santa Monica Daily Press   

Not long ago, a truck drove into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people. It was all over the news. Then, on Christmas Day, an attack at a market in Cameroon, Africa killed 2 people. No one heard about it. So what makes an attack in Berlin more news worthy than an attack in Cameroon? I certainly don’t have the answer to that and you probably don’t either. But, it does make me think about the global poverty crisis; about the people suffering in the developing world who have fallen off the radar too.

Everyone knows that Carrie Fisher just had a heart-attack while traveling over the holidays. We even know how many times the D-list celebrities on the United flight next to her tweeted about the incident.  But how many people know about the global poverty crisis? How many people know that over 2.5 billion people, almost half the world’s population, currently live on less than $2.50 per day? How many people know that in Pakistan, only 17.8 per cent of the population can use the internet? Or that 3.5 million refugee children do not have the option to attend a school.

I used to care more about the “Carrie Fishers” of the world too– way more than about the 795 million people living without enough food. But then, I woke up.

I first learned about The Borgen Project when I applied to be an intern, a writer for their online magazine. But within weeks of starting my internship I became much more. I became a supporter. A few weeks later and I became even more than that. I became an advocate.

Now, I’m urging others to do the same. To acknowledge the terrifying statistics and make a commitment to help those in need.

The Borgen Project promotes innovations in poverty reduction by building awareness to the facts, and to some of the ways we’ve already seen succeed. Essentially, they are an ally for the world’s poor.

You see, there’s nothing too complicated about improving living conditions for the billions suffering world-wide. The Borgen Project understands this, and beyond spreading awareness, they work with U.S. Congress to foster more permanent change.

Listen, I love Star Wars too, and Princess Leia is super cool. But it’s sickening that 47,000 people take the time to re-tweet about Carrie Fisher’s health, and ignore the billions of people living in poverty in our world today.  Please help those suffering not get lost in the crowd. Cultivate some compassion and take the time to make a difference. Who knows, you might even make yourself stand out a little during the process.  At the very least, follow @borgenproject and @borgenmagazine and re-tweet their posts along with your essential celebrity news of the day. And while you’re at it, google “Cameroon Christmas Market,” and take a moment to remember the lives we lost there too.

Volunteers and Social Media Community Work Together in Hurricane Matthew Relief Efforts

As originally published on redcrosslatalks.org

With much of the East Coast under water, four Los Angeles based volunteers went above and beyond the call of duty, traveling 2400 miles to help those in need. Their digital community back home showed support, virtually accompanying them along the way.

On October 10, 2016, Sandy Hanagami, Angela De Rozario, Henry Mills and Pedro Orellena departed from the American Red Cross Los Angeles Regional Headquarters in Emergency Response Vehicles on a 5-day trip to the East Coast to assist with Hurricane Matthew Relief Efforts. Before they left, I exchanged numbers with the group, in hopes of getting a few photos from the volunteers to share the Red Cross mission in action with our social media community here in L.A. Within hours, photos and videos started coming in; and with every state line our volunteers crossed, those of us virtually joining the trip on social media began to feel more and more like we were also a part of the team. By the second day, our Twitter followers and Facebook users were completely engaged, giving advice on the best routes to take, where to stop for local cuisine, and “must-see” landmarks along the way. I did my best to keep up with the content, posting and tweeting updates as best I could in real-time. It wasn’t long before Red Cross chapters from other states began to take notice and follow their journey too, sending virtual shout-outs and waves as our volunteers passed by on freeways and interstates just a few miles away.

The dedication and commitment of our traveling volunteers was great, but the response from our social media community was just as awesome! Not only were people re-tweeting and sharing photos and videos from our volunteers’ trip; but, through the power of social media, our digital community was actually along for the ride, virtually enjoying the journey every step of the way.

By the time Sandy, Angela, Henry and Pedro reached the state of Georgia their deployment destinations were finalized and those of us following from Los Angeles were excited to see them begin assisting with Hurricane Matthew relief efforts and help those affected by the storm. Luckily for us, the photos and videos kept coming; and I kept posting, keeping our volunteers’ new and expanding Red Cross digital family informed and engaged throughout the rest of their 14-day deployment.

“Being out in the field and being able to help people during their greatest time of need is such a great feeling, but the response from social media and the support we received from our Los Angeles community was huge! We really felt like everyone was in our corner. The entire time we were assisting with Hurricane Matthew relief efforts, we knew everyone back home wanted us to succeed.”
– Angela De Rozario, Red Cross Volunteer

If you want to be a part of their journey too, check out this photo album on Facebook and watch this highlight video on YouTube.

Digital Social Discourse

Digital Social Discourse

Mikhail Bakhtin was a 20th century Russian philosopher who expanded upon Marxist thought to define the social function of language. His work, forever ahead of its time, stumps scholars to this day. In fact, much of what Bakhtin wrote aligns with poststructuralist thought, a movement that didn’t emerge until just before his death, in 1975. In his 1935 essay “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin draws attention to the way a variety of diverse discourses work together, to explain, “a concrete socio-ideological language consciousness … where consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language” (677). To quote my favorite professor’s favorite Bakhtin, “When we stare at each other, two different worlds are reflected in the pupils of our eyes. Dialogue, the give and take of language, completes these two worlds” (Salyer). But what if the person you are starring at isn’t physically there? What happens to language when pupils are replaced by a message board, a photo, or a post?  Is there a virtual give and take between dialogue and reflection in our digital world? Have we become blind to authenticity, communicating now through only that which is implied?  Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between, in the virtu-verse of social discourse.

Today, in the world of digital advertising, analytics reports and statistical analysis have nearly surpassed traditional communication.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you could easily find the statistics for how many Japanese-American men watched the “Ice-T Lemonade” ad last Thursday on the new iPhone while taking a sh*t.  Of course this would be accompanied by a pie-chart; highlighting location, socio-economic status, and if the toilet paper they were using came from Google Express.

Bakhtin claims, “a diversity of social speech types, sometimes even diversity of languages and a diversity of individual voices” (674), create language.  In essence, he is defining social discourse. Living somewhere among these various social speech types, within the world of social discourse, is the individual voice. And within every individual voice lies a multi-dimensional internal-verse, full of feeling and thought.  Thus, an infinite number of internal-verses exist within our social universe. But what happens when our social universe goes viral, when it itself becomes infinitesimal? How would Bakhtin define digital social discourse? What would he think of this virtu-verse?  Are there benefits and consequences from communicating through the in-between?

Everyone with a smart phone walks around with the ability to jump in and out of a virtual black hole. Either they are present and participating in society, or stuck in their phone, unconscious to the “real” world. But can consciousness exist above and below a thin transparent screen?

The virtu-verse is this threshold— where social discourse and internal discourse exist consciously and unconsciously, together and separately, virtually and authentically as one.

We’ve all met someone who lives in their own world. Someone who, when they actually speak out loud, is shocked back into “reality.”  For this person, entering the virtu-verse heightens their conscious identity, allowing them to virtually join the collective and enjoy unlimited new opportunities for social interaction.

There are also revenue generating aspects to consider. Throw a little money at the internet and in less than a second your computer sends a pop-up ad to the “right buyer” at the “right time” on precisely the “right quadrant” of the “right page.” Endless new jobs have also emerged, allowing more free time and a higher quality of life for people now choosing to work from home.

But can there be authenticity in virtual communication?  Can humans maintain accountability and consciously exist within an unconscious digital collective?

We’ve seen the power of virtual communication work both ways to inspire the human race.  A little girl from Aleppo can win the hearts of America just as easily as protesting can escalate into a state of emergency overnight. But there is a refreshing human quality to the movement behind the movement in our digital world. Something that makes a  9-year-old girl’s refusal to do her math homework  reach the national news, and remind us all about the importance of teaching and learning respect. Something that raises awareness for worthy causes—remember the “Ice-Bucket Challenge?” Something that allows us to watch the celestial motion of Jupiter and four of its moons, whenever we want, just by looking in the palm of our hand.

Regardless of whether we view digital communication through a positive or negative light, recognizing its ability to empower the virtual-human collective through the social function of language is something we should all consciously embrace. While I appreciate the amenities and services a commodified internet brings, I strongly believe the human benefit, the one we are almost missing, seriously outweighs every platform for capital gain. Don’t get me wrong, I love Google Express— especially when they deliver giant bundles of Costco toilet paper right to my front door. I just don’t see the benefit of others knowing what I’m watching on my iPhone when I use it. And I suspect Bakhtin, though he claimed, “consciousness at all times and everywhere comes upon languages, not language” (677), might also feel the same way.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. (674-685). Print.

Salyer, Gregory. Uberconference.com Interview.  23 September 2016.