@story MARCUS COKER
@image COURTESY MICHAEL SPENCER
Michael Spencer, twenty-nine, doesn’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, and you won’t see him wearing a cape on national news. You might, however, see him wearing an American Red Cross jacket, which is essentially the same thing.
Michael grew up in Van Buren, and first encountered the Red Cross in April of 1996 after a deadly tornado hit the area. After it crossed over into Van Buren, it leveled more than 450 homes. Michael, fourteen, wanted to help his friends who were affected, so he volunteered with a local church. “The Red Cross would come by and feed everyone, and I saw how appreciative people were for the simplest of things,” says Michael. “I knew then that it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
A year later, when he was sixteen, Michael took a Red Cross lifeguarding class, then later started teaching it. A large part of what the Red Cross does is responding to more than 70,000 disasters a year, and Michael began volunteering after families lost their homes to fires, and at other local emergencies. “A lot of people are still in shock,” says Michael. “Just listening, just being there, is important. It’s amazing what a toothbrush or warm meal means to someone. I think it’s the little things that have a big impact down the road.”
In 2000, Michael was selected to participate in training for national disasters. He specialized as part of Red Cross’s advanced public affairs team, and has since been interviewed by Good Morning America, The Today Show, and by Anderson Cooper. “Talking to the media is a big part of my job. We want victims to know where they can go for help and what we’re doing to get them back on their feet. Many people also want to volunteer, donate blood, or give financially, and we want people to have the best information possible to make that decision.”
On September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers were hit, Michael was a freshman at the University of Arkansas. “For a few days, I did interviews for the Red Cross from my dorm room. When air travel opened up, I flew to the Pentagon, then New York. There were bomb threats coming in, and people would ask, ‘Why would you want to go somewhere everyone else is running away from?’ Well, if I were in their shoes, I would hope someone would help me.’”
Michael pauses and says he can still see the images. “There were posters with names and faces of missing loved ones on every available space. We let people cry on our shoulders, but we wanted to cry too. That’s the challenge with any disaster. It starts to become personal after a while.”
Since 2005, Michael has worked for the Red Cross fulltime. He spent two years working in public relations in Washington, DC, and has since worked in information technologies (IT) from his home in Fayetteville. “Of course I want to be on the ground, rolling up my sleeves, but I’ve learned that all the work behind the scenes is what allows the work in the field to be done.”
In addition to his fulltime job in IT, Michael continues to volunteer as a national spokesperson for the Red Cross. Each year, he spends two months on call and responds to an average of two disasters. Michael was on call last year in May when a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, and he arrived the same night. “I’ve been to over a hundred disasters, but nothing quite like Joplin. It was like a war-torn country. There were fires erupting and water shooting up in the air from broken pipes.”
The tornado, classified as the costliest in United States history, leveled hundreds of homes and businesses. The damage has been estimated at three billion dollars. The EF5 tornado, which is the highest ranking given to twisters, killed 160 people and injured almost 1,000 more.
Even the hospital was hit. “The memory I can’t get out of my head is hearing all the heart monitors going off at St. John’s Hospital. It was evacuated, but I kept thinking about what happened to all those people who were in those rooms.”
Michael worked through the night. “The thing that keeps me going is the disaster victims. I’m afraid I might miss someone. It’s about seeing people through their darkest hour. If you ever wrap a blanket around someone who is cold and just lost their home, you’ll never have another feeling like it.”
After Joplin, Michael independently helped start a project called Joplin Rescued Photos. “Our vision is to help storm victims reconnect with lost photos and memories. People bring us photos they’ve found, and we number them and scan them. So far we’ve uploaded over 30,000 photos to our website and Facebook. People can search online and claim pictures that belong to them or their neighbors.” So far, the project has returned almost 4,000 photos.
Michael’s dedication to the Red Cross and Joplin Rescued Photos seems remarkable, but Michael is quick to point out that he’s nothing extraordinary. He doesn’t consider himself a hero. But as he talks about what keeps him volunteering, he says, “If I didn’t give up my time, that person wouldn’t have a place to sleep tonight,” which sounds like something a hero would say.
For more information, visit redcross.org or joplinrescuedphotos.org.