The Red Cross is built on the idea that offering the gift of compassion to those that are in need is a privilege. By lending a helping hand, that privilege becomes hope for people that are frightened and suffering great loss. For many, seeing volunteers from the Red Cross arrive after a fire has burned down their home or a hurricane has taken everything they have is a welcome beacon of relief. One of those volunteers is Chicago’s own Morrie Bowie. Hailing from the Wicker Park neighborhood, Mr. Bowie attended the University of Illinois, receiving a degree in Fine and Applied Arts, before going on to join the fire department. There, Morrie worked as a firefighter for 28 years, putting out fires and acting as a scuba diver, building inspector, photographer, and even becoming a lieutenant. He was also a helicopter pilot for the Chicago Fire Department Air Rescue Unit and a substitute teacher when he wasn’t working at the fire department.
Mr. Bowie is now retired, but his hero heart beats stronger than ever. In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving devastation in its wake. The destruction caused by the hurricane ripped apart homes, tore down infrastructure and left much of the island in ruins. With considerable areas of land lying in wreckage, thousands were left displaced and fearful of what the future held. During that dark time is when Morrie sprung into action, saying that the “public service guy in [him] wanted to do something.” He looked at the Red Cross as a means to help. He signed up to volunteer, went through the training, and deployed to Puerto Rico for one month. After returning home, he saw that there was still a great need for assistance, so he deployed again, this time staying for four months.
While in Puerto Rico, Morrie lived in both Juncos and San Juan, at times in a leaky gymnasium, with the only power coming from a generator. He spent his days packing up trucks with food, water, and supplies that were then taken into communities and up into the mountains. He also supervised assignments for three different warehouses, delegating what responsibilities should be placed with which volunteers. Drawing upon his own Puerto Rican heritage and ability to speak Spanish, Morrie was able to understand the locals and communicate with them at a time when communication was absolutely crucial. On one specific occasion, Morrie recalls a man who came to him for water. He noticed that the man had a 10-gallon container in his car that he had been trying to fill, likely having to drive for miles, from location to location. He was heartbroken at the effort that this man was having to put into getting something as basic as water.
Mr. Bowie continues to serve others through his work at the Red Cross. He installs smoke alarms, is currently a Disaster Action Team Lead, and volunteers Sundays through Thursdays, responding to 10-15 calls per month.
When Morrie was still fighting fires, he said that he would wonder what happened to the people once the fire was put out. He admires the Red Cross because, as he put it, they are “there when people have lost everything [and are] standing outside in their bare feet.” He pointed out that they offer “blankets, a friendly face, an offer to warm up in the car, or [to] call someone for them.”
He summed it up by saying, “Thank God for the Red Cross for giving me a platform,” and going on to say “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘what are you doing for others?’ – Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve always felt that everybody ‘owes.’ If you’re in tune to life’s simplest blessings, like a sunset, the laughter of children, flowers, friends, then gratitude is due. The Red Cross has been my way of paying back. And forward! When people, clients and colleagues, thank me for volunteering, I say thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve others. It’s such a good feeling. The Red Cross is the only organization that does all the things we do. Add to that it’s funded by donations and staffed primarily by volunteers and it’s clear that volunteering with the Red Cross is one of the most selfless things I can do. It’s sometimes hard and requires a sacrifice of time, it may be cold and rainy and the middle of the night, but I never felt that it was time wasted and always warmed by a divine reward. Red Cross has made my retirement years spiritually fruitful. ‘Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love’ – Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Our heartfelt thanks goes out to Mr. Morrie Bowie for all that he’s done and continues to do!
If you or anyone you know is interested in volunteering, visit https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html for more information.
Written by Chicago & Northern Illinois Red Cross Communications Volunteer Vicky Arias.