Thursday, December 6, 2012

How the American Red Cross Became a Part of Me

About a month or so ago I was asked to be the guest speaker for the Brazos Valley American Red Cross Volunteer Recognition. I was honored, of course, but also nervous. Public speaking doesn't usually bother me, especially when it's about something as familiar to me and close to my heart as the American Red Cross. But I do better when I have clear instructions, and in the case of this speech, my only directives were to "speak for 15 minutes" and to "say something inspirational". For me, that set-up = a boatload of pressure.

I spent quite a bit of my time (when I wasn't watching Twilight movies) and put a lot of my heart into this speech. Which is why I wanted to make sure I documented my story in a place where it would be safe and where I could come back to it if ever I needed a reminder as to why I give so much to the American Red Cross. This blog is my "safe place" (I realize that sounds strange, given that it's a public space), so this is where I'm choosing to keep the written version of my speech.

Side note #1: The speech is long - it took me 15 minutes to give - so I completely understand if you don't want to read it in its entirety.  But if I could ask a favor of you...please read the last four paragraphs.  They sum up what the speech is all about.  What my connection to the American Red Cross is all about.

Side note #2: Though I of course did not directly refer to The Twilight Saga during my speech, the Twilight stories were on my mind quite a bit while I was writing over the Thanksgiving weekend. In tribute, I threw in a little something at the end of the speech for the Twihards. (People often jokingly refer to the American Red Cross as vampires - because they "want your blood" - so I thought it was was appropriate.)

Thank you so much, Vickie.

Like most, if not all of you, I am a Red Cross volunteer. And also like most of you, I have a Red Cross story, one that I am honored to have been asked to tell tonight.

My first American Red Cross experience came when I was 11 years old. I was eager to earn a little extra spending money – probably to purchase a sparkly snap bracelet or the new Kokomo cassette tape to play in my Walkman – and my parents gave me the option of either painting the garage or babysitting for the neighborhood children. Not surprisingly, I chose babysitting for the neighborhood children. And because I wanted to be as prepared as possible to handle what the preschoolers living next door might literally and figuratively throw at me, I enrolled in a Red Cross Babysitting Class. (It should be noted that two summers later, my parents made my sister and me paint the garage anyway.)

I had no idea that my decision to become a babysitter, small as it seemed at the time, began me on my journey to a life-long partnership with this organization. My story is about how the Red Cross became a part of me, but in order to fully explain, I should elaborate how I became a part of the Red Cross.

I developed a deeper connection to the American Red Cross throughout my high school and college years. I became certified in CPR, First Aid, and Water Safety, and when I turned 17, I began donating blood on a regular basis. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the Red Cross was slowly becoming part of my social identity.

My interest in what I learned in my CPR and First Aid classes, as well as what I learned about blood donation, led me to believe – at least while in college – that I wanted a career in medicine. However on the first day of my super senior year (as in 5th year) of college, I had something of a panic attack. Suddenly the thought of going down a career path that would involve between three and 10 additional years of school was too much for me to handle. I marched on down to my guidance counselor’s office that afternoon and changed my major. For the fourth time. As I’m sure you can imagine, my parents were thrilled.

When I graduated nine months later with a degree in sociology, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I knew only that my direction needed to involve something that made me feel good about myself and allowed me to help those in need.

As my job search began, I came across a listing for a Financial Development Associate at the Grant Wood Area Chapter of the American Red Cross in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

My interview for the position was challenging. I was nervous, not because it was my first “real” interview, but because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to adequately convey how passionate I was about the mission of the American Red Cross. I desperately needed the Chapter’s ED and DFD to understand that I wasn’t just interested in a job. I was interested in a job serving the American Red Cross. And though I knew I’d done my very best, I certainly wasn’t holding my breath when the interview came to an end.

But the call came, and two weeks later I walked into the Real World, into my First Job, and into the American Red Cross, all at the same time.

It was an interesting time to join the American Red Cross, especially in a fundraising position. The September 11th terrorist attacks had taken place less than a year earlier, and many Americans were still confused about where and how their donations to the American Red Cross would be used. I had a solid education under my belt, but everything else in front of me was brand new and overwhelming. I felt lost and confused and wondered if joining the Red Cross team had been a mistake.

It became clear, however, that the people with whom I worked wanted me to succeed as badly as I wanted to be successful. The American Red Cross supports its people – employees and volunteers alike. My success was the organization’s success, and the organization’s success was mine. Throughout the years that followed I would come to understand this mentality more and more.

After two years working in fundraising for the Red Cross in Iowa, my husband was accepted to graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was difficult to leave our friends behind, but it was far more difficult for me to leave behind the organization that in such a short period of time had become my professional home. I knew I had so much more to give to the Red Cross, and I was terrified to think that just as I’d gotten my toe in the door, there was a good chance that same door would now be slammed in my face.

I consider myself unbelievably blessed that after we’d been in Ann Arbor for a month, I was offered a position at the Washtenaw County Chapter. As the Blood Services Coordinator, I spent my days recruiting, training, and coordinating hundreds of Red Cross volunteers to staff between 40 and 75 blood drives a month.

I was working as the Blood Services Coordinator on August 29th, 2005, at 8:27am, when the phone began to ring. And ring. And ring. Suddenly community members were coming out of the woodwork, desperate to volunteer. It took us a few minutes to connect the dots, as we’d only just stepped into the office when the phone started ringing…August 29th, 2005 was the day Hurricane Katrina devastated our country.

My surprise at the volume of calls from community members makes it sound as though we weren’t prepared, but I assure you, we were, both as a national organization and as a chapter. It’s just that we were in Michigan – more than 1,000 miles from the worst-hit city, New Orleans. While we’d expected to ramp up our fundraising and blood collection efforts in the coming days, we hadn’t anticipated how almost frantic the community would be to help.

August 29th marked the beginning of three of the most difficult weeks of my professional life, in part because the American Red Cross made the difficult decision to do something they’d never done before. The organization decided to train community members as disaster volunteers DURING a disaster response so that these people would be available to deploy immediately.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, when a disaster struck, only volunteers who were already trained and certified were available to deploy. Though community members would often inquire about volunteering for an underway disaster, they weren’t allowed to do so because of the extensive training required. These folks were of course pulled into the system and trained so that they would be available for the NEXT disaster, but could not be sent out on deployment until at least a few weeks after their first inquiry.

The need for volunteers in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina was so massive that the American Red Cross had to drastically alter the very foundation on which disaster volunteering had been built. The intake, orientation, and training that used to take two months now needed to take no more than 48 hours. And because the American Red Cross had never before gone this route, there were no manuals, no instructions, and no guidelines to steer us in the right direction.

In any other industry, or at any other time, being asked to do something so difficult in the workplace would have angered most employees. But that wasn’t the case at the Red Cross. Never before have I seen so many people – employees, seasoned volunteers, brand new volunteers, and community partners – come together so quickly. We transitioned from business-as-usual to disaster operation mode before our untouched cups of coffee had cooled.

In the upstairs workspace, we operated a phone bank, fielding calls from community members interested in joining our volunteer ranks and organizations interested in donating goods or services. In the multi-purpose room, we processed volunteer paperwork, ran volunteer background checks, and scheduled volunteers for training sessions. In the garage bay, vehicles were moved out, donated folding chairs and tables were moved in, and volunteers were oriented to the American Red Cross and briefed on the fast-paced, unpredictable, and difficult world of disaster deployment.

The days were extraordinarily long – sun-up until long after sun-down – but going home was worse. That first night I turned on the news as I crashed down into my bed. The photos, videos, and news reports covering the complete devastation and despair were overwhelming, and before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face.

But the following morning I awoke with a renewed spirit. Not because I knew everything would be alright – I actually felt the opposite, somehow knowing that things were going to get worse before they got better – but because my purpose was clear. The babysitting class when I was 11, the CPR and FA classes in high school, donating blood, fundraising for the Grant Wood Area Chapter in Iowa – each of these experiences kept me moving forward on my path and delivered me to where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be there. The American Red Cross needed my help. The people in the path of the storm needed my help.

For weeks we worked 12+ hour days, six days a week. We missed our families and friends, lost sleep, and struggled to maintain our composure in the face of such tragedy. Little things helped us keep going. Donated donuts for breakfast and pizza for dinner from local restaurants. Visits from therapy dogs, trained to provide comfort to those in emotional distress. Hugs from New Orleans residents who, after evacuating prior to the storm’s landfall, drove north until they felt safe and somehow found themselves 1,000 miles from home and at our front door.

I’d heard Red Cross employees and volunteers talk about what life inside the organization had been like in the days, weeks, and months following September 11th. Intellectually I understood what they had gone through, but there was no way I could ever emotionally understand their experience. At least until I’d been a part of a large-scale, national disaster response myself.

As human beings we are naturally united by shared struggle. By shared pain. By coming together in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds, holding hands through the darkness, and eventually emerging, still connected to one another, into the light.

So much of what we do as Red Cross employees and volunteers is hard. Not just physically hard, but emotionally and mentally hard. We struggle. We hurt. But we eventually emerge into the light.

There is always a moment in the “life” of a Red Cross volunteer when the Red Cross becomes not just something you do, but something you are. When you can say to yourself – and to those around you – that for the rest of your life, the mission of this incredible organization will be imprinted on your heart.

I became a part of the American Red Cross in 1990, more than 22 years ago. But the Red Cross became a part of me on Monday, August 29th, 2005. I hope that if your day has not yet arrived, you will stay with the organization until it does. I promise, you will never be the same.

Thank you.

ARC volunteer, Mikey, and five-month-old Will,
at Will's very first Volunteer Recognition.
Grandma bribes Will at his second Volunteer
Recognition. Clearly he was having a fantastic time.
My ARC model (seriously, doesn't she make you
want to buy that onesie?!), preparing for her
first Volunteer Recognition.

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