See how this husband & wife team supports disaster victims in Birmingham

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American Red Cross
Debbie and Leo Looney standing in front of an American Red Cross Disaster Relief vehicle. (Nathan Watson / Bham Now)

What does your typical night out with your significant other look like? Dinner and drinks? A night at the movies? For Debbie and Leo Looney, many of their trips out as a couple involve helping families recover from a natural disaster, such as a home fire, on behalf of the American Red Cross.

We spoke with Debbie and Leo to learn more about their experience working for and volunteering with the American Red Cross.

Meet Debbie & Leo Looney

American Red Cross
Debbie and Leo Looney at the American Red Cross office in downtown Birmingham. (Nathan Watson / Bham Now)

In the early hours of Sunday, February 13th, Debbie Looney and her husband Leo were awoken by a call from the American Red Cross—a home fire had just been reported in West Birmingham. As Disaster Program Manager for Jefferson and Shelby Counties, its Debbie’s role to offer Red Cross aid to the victims of the home fire—and Leo, a Red Cross volunteer, is almost always by her side to help in any way he can.

The Looney’s didn’t always get early-morning calls from the American Red Cross. Debbie and Leo met in the late 1970s—she was studying at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he was working as a mail carrier. After getting married in 1982, Debbie worked for a number of companies in Birmingham—including UAB, the 1st Alabama Bank and Alabama Power. Then, she landed a job with the Army Reserve as a Family Programs Coordinator and Training Specialist.

During her 15-year career with the Army Reserve Family Programs, Debbie was tasked with connecting soldiers and their families to a range of programs and services. Often, she’d work closely with the American Red Cross to get the soldiers the help they needed.

“I was very familiar with the work of the American Red Cross during my time in the Army Reserve. For example, if a soldier had a family emergency or a death in the family, obviously that solider may need to come home from deployment. The American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces helps us facilitate that journey and even provides financial assistance to the soldier in their time of need.”

Debbie Looney, Middle Alabama Disaster Program Manager, American Red Cross

Making a Difference with the American Red Cross

American Red Cross
Leo standing near the ruins of a house fire that he and Debbie responded to. (Debbie Looney)

Three years ago, Debbie found a new opportunity to help people: as a Disaster Program Manager for the American Red Cross. In her role with the Red Cross, Debbie is often assigned to visit disaster sites and to provide resources for victims of home fires, tornados, thunderstorms and more.

“For me, the Army Reserve prepared me for the hardships of my role at the Red Cross. We lost troops, and I worked with their families to help alleviate their struggle. Working for the Red Cross, you do have to be resilient. The Red Cross does encourage you to take time off to take care of yourself, and we have other people can we can turn to if we’re struggling. The biggest thing that Leo and I have are each other. He’s on my team, I’m on his and we know we are each looking out for one another.”

Debbie Looney, Middle Alabama Disaster Program Manager, American Red Cross

Since the American Red Cross mandates that Disaster Action Teams (DAT) include at least two people, Debbie began bringing Leo along. After a few ride-alongs, Leo made the jump to become an official Red Cross Volunteer—and Debbie couldn’t be happier.

“One time, Leo and I responded to a fire in Birmingham at a boarding house, and the people were understandably upset and angry. While I was busy writing down their information and lining up the next step, Leo stood up and started speaking with them and helping to calm them down. To me as a Disaster Program Manager, Leo is an asset to have on my team. He’s able to calm down people who are in tears, who are upset, who often don’t have a plan for what they’re going to do next. It’s an extremely challenging role, but together, Leo and I are able to give these people the help they need.”

Debbie Looney, Middle Alabama Disaster Program Manager, American Red Cross
American Red Cross
Leo speaking to a family whose home was devastated by a fire. (Debbie Looney)

As for Leo?

“Aside from Debbie’s encouragement, the volunteer work really pulled me in to serve individuals. Being able to help people the way that we do is a very humbling and touching experience. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, to assist someone on one of the worst days in their lives. You can’t help but pour your heart out to these people in need. There is always a need for help, whether it’s spiritual or physical.”

Leo Looney, Volunteer, American Red Cross

Here’s How You Can Support the American Red Cross

Red Cross blood donation
Bham Now’ers try to give blood when they can! (Beth Cunningham / Bham Now)

When people think of the Red Cross, the first thing that comes to mind is giving blood. And unfortunately, the Red Cross is in the midst of their first-ever blood crisis—so the need for blood donations has never been greater. But if you aren’t able to give blood, there are plenty of ways you can still make an impact.

“The American Red Cross is experiencing a national blood shortage right now, so we need all the donations we can get. But if you can’t give blood for any reason, there are still ways you can make a difference through the Red Cross. Right now, our focus is on attracting volunteers for our Disaster Action Teams—especially here in Birmingham. Since we can’t predict when fires or other disasters will happen, we need volunteers who not only have the time but the heart to help others.”

Debbie Looney, Middle Alabama Disaster Program Manager, American Red Cross

Want to learn more about joining one of the Red Cross’ Disaster Action Teams? Click here to learn more & apply.

Click here to visit their website to learn about more volunteer opportunities with the American Red Cross. Make sure to follow the Red Cross on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date on volunteer opportunities!

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Nathan Watson
Nathan Watson

Senior Content Producer with Bham Now | Originally from Tennessee, Nathan moved to The Magic City after graduating from Birmingham-Southern College. Nathan is passionate about recognizing Birmingham's history and is thrilled to learn more about the big things planned for The Magic City's future.

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