Return from Africa

Emily Beauchemin left for Cape Town, South Africa, three months ago to volunteer as a child life specialist. We talked with her before she left, and she did us the courtesy of writing this upon her return.

“Wherever your may go, go with all of your heart.” –Confucius

Emily Beauchemin poses with a doll used to help children prepare for their medical procedures. It can be used to demonstrate a central line, skin grafts, hair loss and other situations the young patients will face.

How do you even go about describing an experience that has changed your life forever? When people have asked me about what my experience was like in South Africa, I could use many words: “beautiful,” “amazing,” “encouraging,” “vibrant,” and the list continues.  But not one word would sum up the depth of my journey in Cape Town, South Africa.  There are simply no words to paint the picture of the beautiful city and the time I spent working with children, families and the medical team at the Red Cross War Memorial Hospital.

Often in my life I have found that the days seem to march by so quickly without my notice to the date or time or day of the week that they are gone long before we have the chance to stop to say hello. Looking back on my time in Cape Town I wonder what happened to the last three months, how did they disappear so quickly?

The weeks on my calendar seemed to fly by so fast that I could never seem to keep up! Yet each day brought something new into my life; be it a new challenge, a new lesson, a new friend, or a new adventure, my life was constantly filled with moments that taught me more about myself and Child Life than I could have ever imagined.

Before going to Africa, I knew that I wanted to make a difference and somehow help these children and families who were facing one of the most traumatic times they may ever encounter. However, by working with each and every child and family, they gave me more than I could ever offer them. 

Every interaction that I encountered with a child and family they had a specific lesson to teach me; whether it was courage, strength, resiliency, love, patience, kindness or compassion, each one had something special to show me.

I distinctly remember my first week working in the burn ward at the Red Cross War Memorial Hospital, and I didn’t think that I was going to have the strength to give these families the supportive services that they needed. The Red Cross War Memorial Hospital admits roughly 250,000 children annually, 95% of which are underserved or indigenous. On the burn ward, children suffer from severe second and third degree burns, which are usually caused by a lack of education or the living conditions in the townships, which are informal, underdevelopment living areas.

Stepping into the burn treatment room for the first time to support a child during a dressing change was one of the most eye opening experiences that I will never forget. Minutes after I provided some comforting support and distraction for this child who was in critical pain, I was quickly enlightened and amazed to how resilient these children were, despite the disparities and tribulations they had gone through. Each and every day brought something new, and some days were harder than I could have ever imagined. But even with the tough days, each child brought something positive into my life, which I am beyond grateful for.

During my time spent at Red Cross War Memorial Hospital, a woman named Lauren Pech created a program called the Creative Arts Therapy and Wellness Program.  Her newly established program includes the disciplines of: child life, art therapy, aromatherapy, play therapy, music therapy, and yoga therapy. Through these non-medical disciplines Lauren’s goal is to provide a more holistic approach in meeting the needs of the child. By providing psychological and emotional support through a range of modalities, children will not only be able to cope more effectively, but they will also be able to heal quicker by bringing joy and fun into their lives. Lauren asked me as well as a colleague of mine, if we would like to come back to South Africa in order to join the Creative Arts team at the hospital.

What an honor and privilege I felt at the moment that we received this position. All along, I knew that my true passion lies in South Africa, and I knew that this is where I needed to be. Since the program is newly developed, we will have to seek out our own funding in order to pay for our salaries.

So with our grant proposal in our hands, and our hearts in South Africa, we aim to seek out funding for our positions as Child Life Specialists during the next several months. And as I get ready for this new, exciting, selfless journey, I challenge and encourage you to also pursue your dreams. Each and every moment that we are living, there is a change waiting to happen; whether it’s a change in yourself, or your views, the change in the life of a child, or simply change in your perception on things.  Whatever your true passion may be, I hope that you can seek it whole-heartedly, and never once doubt your capabilities on making a difference, because anything truly is possible.


Beating “The Last Measle”

The Red Cross and Red Crescent are symbols recognized worldwide. Its presence—on the sides of medical ambulances, emergency response vehicles, T-shirts of volunteers—immediately instills hope and relief to the millions of people impacted by conflict and disaster. And while the American Red Cross is known for its work in both domestic and international disasters, there is another aspect of our work that is not as well known. But to one billion children in 80 different countries around the world, this work has literally saved their lives.

The Measles Initiative is a partnership—led by the American Red Cross, United Nations Foundation, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and World Health Organization—committed to reducing measles deaths worldwide. And since the partnership in 2001, we’ve been doing just that.

As a result of the Initiative, more than 1 billion children in more than 80 countries have received a measles vaccination. To date, the partnership has invested $670 million in measles control activities, helping to save an estimated 4.3 million lives. We do this through technical and financial support to governments and communities conducting mass vaccination campaigns, improving routine immunization services, and establishing effective disease surveillance. This is critical because as much success as the Measles Initiative has had, if vaccine coverage doesn’t reach 95 percent of a population, the virus doesn’t go away.

One of the strengths of the Red Cross and Red Crescent network is the power of our millions of volunteers around the globe. Because of this strength, the American Red Cross focuses on social mobilization for the Measles Initiative. Volunteers use mass media, rallies, door-to-door visits and educational entertainment to reach families in distant villages and urban settlements who typically do not have access to routine health services. This personal outreach results in parents bringing their children in to be vaccinated, leading to increased participation in mass vaccination campaigns by as much as 10 percent. Greater participation means greater immunization coverage and greater chances of warding off outbreaks.

One day, we hope to eradicate “The Last Measle.”

This post was provided to Red Cross Chat by Guest Blogger Niki Clark

Union County volunteer heads to Red Cross War Memorial Hospital in South Africa

Emily Beauchemin will take this doll with her to Cape Town. The doll is used to help children prepare for their medical procedures, as it can be used to demonstrate a central line, skin grafts, hair loss and other situations the young patients will face.

Emily Beauchemin still hasn’t packed her bags, though her flight leaves in just four days for Cape Town, South Africa, where she will spend three months volunteering as a child life specialist at theRed Cross War Memorial Hospital.

 “There’s a lot more to being a child life specialist than just play,” she said at a Wednesday night meeting of the Union County Red Cross Women of Hope (or as they call themselves, the Woo Hoos).

Emily, 23, told the group that she will be working with children who are facing everything from minor procedures to terminal illness. In her role, she will help young patients prepare for their procedures and provide psychological and emotional support. Child life specialists help ease a child’s fear and anxiety through therapeutic and recreational activites.

Emily shows the different ways the doll will help children prepare for their procedures.

The Woo Hoos brought bags and bags of toys, books and other items to ship to Cape Town. Those items will be used to help children during their time in the hospital.

“Doctors can tend to focus on the pain,” Emily explained. “We’re there to help the child get a sense of control over what’s going to happen through giving them choices. For example, we ask them if they would rather read a book or picture their ‘happy place’ during a procedure.”

Child life specialists also advocate for family-centered care and consider the needs of siblings of the sick child.

“We also do bereavement support,” she said, noting that she will be helping some children with terminal illnesses build scrapbooks and memories for their families. “Many South African families can’t afford a camera, so getting pictures of their child is like gold.”

The Red Cross War Memorial Hospital is the only freestanding children’s hospital in South Africa. While Emily will encounter children facing all sorts of situations, she knows there is a high concentration of burn victims.

Emily is going to Cape Town through a program called Connect 123, which helps students and young professionals find international internships and volunteer opportunities. While Connect led Emily to South Africa, she’s the one financing the trip.

“I have worked at a preschool for the last five months saving every penny for this trip,” she said. “I’m excited to start working.”

We will be following Emily’s journey through her blog. Good luck, Emily, we’re excited to watch you make a huge difference in the lives of so many!

Haiti: Two-year update

The American Red Cross has issued a two-year report on recovery efforts in Haiti.

From Red Cross President Gail McGovern:

Thanks to our generous donors, dedicated volunteers and strong partners, the American Red Cross has been shifting our focus from relief to recovery. We’re helping to rebuild what the earthquake destroyed in Haiti and working with local communities to make them safer and healthier. We have built homes, given people opportunities to earn money, provided access to clean water and sanitation systems, supported the delivery of health care, and taught communities how to prevent the spread of diseases and to be better prepared for future disasters.

View the full report

Fantasy or reality?

The following is from Red Cross Chat, our national blog:

You may have seen some of the recent news coverage and discussions online about how the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has raised the issue of how — or even if — the laws of armed conflict should apply in virtual settings such as war-related video games.

There are many facets to this discussion and quite a bit of commentary flying around the internet. Even though the American Red Cross is a separate organization from the ICRC, a number of questions and comments are coming our way, and we wanted to address some of them:

Why is the ICRC even getting into this issue?

In real life, armed forces are subject to the laws of armed conflict. Video games simulating the experience of armed forces have the potential to raise awareness of the rules that those forces must comply with. This is one of the things that interests the ICRC. The fact is that some video games already take into account how real-life military personnel are trained to behave in conflict situations.

Part of the ICRC’s mission is to promote respect for international humanitarian law – also known as the law of armed conflict – and universal humanitarian principles. That means the ICRC spends time educating people around the world and raising awareness abou the rules of war.

So the ICRC’s long history and expertise in matters relating to armed conflict gives them a place to weigh in on this issue.

Some media coverage says that certain virtual acts by video game characters could amount to serious violations of the law of armed conflict. Is this the stance of the Red Cross?

Of course not. Serious violations of the laws of war can only be committed in real-life situations, not in video games. Nobody suggests that gamers would be the target of war crimes prosecution.

Doesn’t the ICRC have better things to do like dealing with real issues of armed conflict?
Real-life armed conflict and its humanitarian consequences are in fact the primary concern of the ICRC.

With its roughly 12,000 staff, the ICRC carries out humanitarian activities in situations of armed violence all over the world. It is often the first organization to arrive on the scene when conflict erupts and to attend to the needs of people detained, displaced or otherwise affected. It also strives to bring about improved compliance with the law of armed conflict and contribute to creating an environment conducive to respect for the dignity of people affected by armed conflicts.

How is the ICRC different from the American Red Cross?

While both are part of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network, they are two different organizations. The American Red Cross is a humanitarian organization based in the US, whose mission is to help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. The ICRC is an independent organization providing humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence

What is the stance of the American Red Cross on this issue?

We think that it’s healthy to promote the discussion around international humanitarian law and the rules of war. In fact, earlier this year the American Red Cross conducted a survey that revealed that 59% of youth aged 12-17 believe there are times when it is acceptable to torture the enemy. 41% even believe that it is sometimes acceptable to torture American soldiers. At the same time, the survey showed that 80% of young people believe that more education about the rules of war is important. This could be one way to start that discussion and begin that education process.

We have seen a lot of comments and opinions on the social web – and we’re open to hearing more.

Feel free to post your comments here on our blog. Over the next several days, we’ll be listening. All we ask is that you keep it clean and keep it civil. We’ll try to answer as many questions as we can and we’ll also point the ICRC to our site so they can see what you think.

If you want to know more about the ICRC, visit To learn more about international humanitarian law and the rules of war visit our website at


Gail McGovern: Latest Visit to Haiti

Editor’s note: On July 21 and 22, American Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern traveled to Port-au-Prince, her fifth visit to Haiti since last year’s devastating earthquake. Here are some observations from the trip.

Every time I make a trip to Haiti, it looks a little bit better. On this visit, I’ve sensed a real feeling of optimism. There’s a returning sense of normalcy, less rubble, and signs of rebuilding. I also saw fewer people in the camps, and the numbers bear it out. People are moving from under tarps, into homes and getting on with their lives.

Gail Mcgovern Haiti visit

What the American Red Cross is doing in Haiti is very much in the spirit of building back better.

On Friday I attended a meeting of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. President Martelly was at that meeting, and shared with us the details of his 100-day plan. Among other things, it focuses on systematic ways to move people out of six camps and into neighborhoods. The plan seems reasonable and feasible, and I was certainly impressed with the presentation.

The American Red Cross and our partners in the Red Cross network have decided to allocate funds to relocate about 900 families from one of the makeshift camps, as part of the 100-day plan. We’ll do this through a combination of new home construction, repair of damaged homes and economic support to renters.

What the American Red Cross is doing in Haiti is very much in the spirit of building back better. The global Red Cross network has also committed to helping 30,000 families transition out of camps and into safer homes. That work is well underway, and more than 12,000 families have been helped. Semi-permanent houses are going up and there are smiles on the faces of recipients. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Hurricane Tomas Haiti 2010

Building permanent communities will be harder, and will take longer.

The next step in our housing strategy is more ambitious. We’re planning on repairing and potentially building permanent homes. In fact, one of our stops on this trip was at a housing exposition in Port-au-Prince. President Martelly and Bill Clinton – who’s co-chair of the recovery commission – attended the expo as well. About 60 different construction companies were there showing their designs. We’re putting together a request for proposals to evaluate which options are best for us.

Building permanent communities will be harder, and will take longer. It will involve not just the homes themselves, but a whole series of interconnected services, from water and sanitation to roads. We’re talking about a massive urban renewal program that’s going to take years to complete. Our hope to create sustainable change in Haiti.

When I look at the Haitians, I see people who are hopeful, optimistic and resilient. They’re industrious and entrepreneurial. But Haiti is a challenging place too. It’s going to be complex to get all this done in an equitable way. Despite the challenges, I truly do have a feeling of optimism.