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How “The West Wing” Inspires Volunteerism: Then and Now

Part of my weekly routine involves watching a few episodes of The West Wing – it’s (sometimes) intelligent fiction, well written, etc….but this habit mostly stemmed from my husband being borderline flabbergasted/appalled that I had not watched this show before.

People will tell you that the show seems to predict a lot of things, but the episode we watched last night just about had me in tears. It was the Season 5, Episode 6 “Disaster Relief” episode (first aired almost 10 years ago!). Here’s the basic story line: an F5 tornado tears through a small town in Oklahoma, leaving many dead, others wounded, and of course, the Red Cross managing shelters to help those displaced. The whole catch of the episode was that once President Bartlett walked into the Red Cross shelter, he felt a human duty to drop his responsibilities as President, and sit with those who lost everything.

You see, this same reason is why a lot of our volunteers join the Red Cross. They see suffering on TV, they feel helpless, and the humanitarian pull to help, comfort, and console, then drives them to pick up their phone and call their local chapter. Every time I deploy, I talk to more and more volunteers who site this scenario as their starting point with the Red Cross.

In the last part of the episode, President Bartlett walks into the shelter’s kitchen, and talks to a local Red Cross volunteer cleaning dishes. We don’t get her whole story, but we do discover that she knew people who lost their lives in the tornado. Kids. Yet, through that sadness, she was there…volunteering to help her community rebuild.

Yes, this was TV, but the themes that were portrayed by actors 10 years ago are certainly true of Red Crossers today. They are the best humanity has to offer; they give hope in dark hours, and overcome their own losses to help others (almost every disaster I’ve deployed to has given me the opportunity to meet these people).

So, if a TV episode that is 10 years old can teach us anything, it can teach us to call our local chapter, and become a trained Red Cross volunteer…because it will only be a matter of time before you too feel compelled to drop everything and help.

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