While millions of Americans celebrate college basketball this month, filling out brackets and screaming at TV sets, March means more than madness for some. For the American Red Cross and its volunteers, March is Red Cross Month and a celebration of the services the organization provides communities.
In Chautauqua County, 225 everyday citizens currently volunteer their time to the Red Cross.
With a paid staff of eight, the American Red Cross of Southwestern New York's volunteers deliver 90 percent of the chapter's services.
Local Red Cross volunteers traveled to eastern New York and New Jersey last year to help flood victims.
"We could not afford to do what we do, nor could we deliver the services that are so important without the volunteers," said Bill Tucker, the chapter's executive officer. "They're everything to us."
Some of the volunteers partake in the Disaster Action Team, traveling to assist local disaster victims or even going out of the area to help others.
In August, 11 area volunteers traveled to New Jersey and eastern New York to help flood victims after Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene. Area volunteers also make up the responders who travel to recent natural disasters, such as last month's tornadoes in the midwest.
"Our volunteers form the foundation of the national response capability the Red Cross has," Tucker said. "It's from that pool of local volunteers that we draw the people who will go to Mississippi or Indiana or Kentucky after these devastating tornadoes. They're there for a week or two at a time, providing the necessary aid. Words can't express how important they are."
Nationally, the American Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters each year, providing shelter, food, emotional support and other necessities to those affected.
Mary Ritchie, of Dunkirk, joined the Red Cross following 9/11. She worked at Chautauqua County Mental Health and decided she'd like to do something similar for the Red Cross.
"I just kind of visit with the person who has been affected," she said. "I find that helpful for them, and I enjoy doing that."
Ritchie has responded to disasters locally and traveled across the state to assist those affected by Irene.
"When I was going to Hurricane Irene, the whole time I was thinking, 'I'm never doing this again. I'm never doing this again,'" she said. "On my way back I thought, 'Well, I could probably do this again.' It really takes doing it to get it I think."
Dave Erickson, of Lakewood, began volunteering with the Red Cross in 2004 after retiring from Dawson Metal.
"I just had more time available to do it and thought that was one way that I could give something back to the community that I hadn't really been able to do previously," said Erickson, who has responded to several local disasters, getting called out in the middle of the night to help others.
He went to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and has taken part in mission trips with Lakewood Baptist and Christ First United Methodist churches, traveling to the Ukraine, Cuba and Haiti.
"Katrina was something I'll never forget," said Erickson, who drove an Emergency Response Vehicle in New Orleans, carrying food to those in need.
He doesn't limit himself to disaster response; Erickson also volunteers for area blood drives. Overall, his Red Cross experience has been worthwhile.
"You get a lot more back than you're able to give out," he said. "They're under a lot of emotional stress, and you're able to relieve some of that stress for them and just generally provide some assistance."
David S. Brown, Ph.D., who retired from Sherman Central School, has been a board member of the local Red Cross for eight years and has been a Disaster Action Team volunteer for two.
He and his wife, Sandy, who also worked for Sherman Central, went on several mission trips following Hurricane Katrina. Brown won't soon forget his experiences in New Orleans.
"It was incredible," he said. "You can't envision the kind of devastation unless you see it. Watching it on the news doesn't quite do it. When you see it, you talk to the people, (and) you actually see the effects on the people. It's profound."
Brown has traveled to Oakville, Iowa, to help those suffering from flood damage, and to other disaster-stricken locations. No matter where he and his wife go with the Red Cross, they've always found the volunteering experience to be a rewarding one.
"We've had younger people with us, and I think it's been really a good experience for them to do something positive for others as well," he said. "It's been a good experience all the way around. You respond after some type of emergency, it might a flood, a tornado or a fire. You're working there to try to help the people make it through a tough time."
When Brown's board term ends in a year, he and his wife plan continue to volunteer with the Disaster Action Team.
Doug Justham, of Jamestown, has been a Red Cross disaster volunteer for more than five years. He initially got involved with the organization on the national level, hoping to help out with communications and technical work. He soon realized it made more sense for him to join the local chapter.
"I wasn't able to go out on the national response team like I wanted to because of time constraints," he said. "As I got involved a little bit with the local chapter, I really had no desire to get involved in the fire responses and things like that because I had no desire to go and talk to people after they lost their home from a terrible disaster. It just didn't sound like fun to me. That's kind of why I got involved in the technical side of it. I thought, 'Well, I'll try it once,' and I love it now."
Justham, director of marketing and development at Heritage Ministries, doesn't only help out at local disaster scenes. He also volunteers at blood drives.
After he retires in 10 years or so, Justham plans to up his involvement with the Red Cross, possibly on the national level.
"It doesn't matter if they call at midnight or 2 a.m., it's just been so rewarding to go out and help people," he said. "You're seeing their faces. Person-to-person help just is an amazing experience. I've never heard anybody complain that they went out."