Lake County Red Cross Volunteers – A Legacy of Service

By Susanne LaFaver, Red Cross volunteer

Some of Lake County’s most ardent Red Cross volunteers are among the region’s residents most familiar with its disaster threats and those ready to lend a hand to others.


Shelter manager Deborah Smith uses the daily map provided by Cal Fire to show local residents which areas are still under evacuation orders.
Photo Credit: Virginia Becker|American Red Cross

Take Deborah Smith, Lower Lake shelter site supervisor, whose own Buckingham Park home was under advisory evacuation because of the Mendocino Complex Fire. She nevertheless offered lodging this week to fellow Red Crosser, Jeff Plank, evacuated from his Upper Lake home.

A retired Contra Costa social worker and current Lake County Red Cross Disaster Action Team lead, as well as a member of St. John’s  Episcopal Church in Lakeport, Smith said her volunteer work fulfills deep spiritual commitments and responsibilities.

“There are so many needs here and, as residents, we know that. This is my home. I want to serve my community,” she says. “Fortunately, we get so much outside help, that when I deploy to other disasters, there’s a strong sense that I’m paying it forward.”

She’s been assigned as a caseworker or reunification supervisor on Red Cross disaster response eight times in four years, including relief efforts after tornados and floods in Texas, Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys, volcanoes in Hawaii and multiple fires in California.

“We stay with Red Cross for the appreciation received from shelter clients,” Smith said. “They are overwhelmingly happy and thankful. We’re all volunteers. We get paid in hugs.”

A supervisor for the Red Cross shelter at Lower Lake High School during the Mendocino Complex Fire, her assignment was to care for 221 people sleeping in the building and approximately 125 people, choosing to sleep outside. Those not staying inside are welcome to food, water, social and medical services, as are those inside the shelter. “We also accommodated 79 dogs, 77 cats, and three birds, including one very noisy bird,” laughed Smith.


Red Cross volunteer Jeff Plank washes and sterilizes each and every cot after they are used. Additionally, Jeff has been evacuated from his home located near the Ranch fire. “I’d rather be here helping than just sitting around worrying about my house.”
Photo Credit: Albert Becker | American Red Cross

Her fellow long-time volunteer Jeff Plank is responsible for an equally important and necessary task, managing “all things cots.”

As shelter assistant in Lower Lake, he ensures each evacuee gets a clean, sanitized cot. It’s a constant job with repeat processes that include being hosed down, soaped, rinsed, dried, sprayed with Lysol, dried again and, finally, folded.

“Each disaster is different,” said Plank. “When the call came down to evacuate our three Kelseyville shelters in the Mendocino Complex Fire, I cleaned hundreds of cots for shipment and use in the Middletown High School shelter.”

His mother, Pam, got him involved in the Red Cross in 1995. Plank said he volunteers to keep his mother’s legacy alive and to “stay sane.”  Pam Plank, who died a few years ago, was the local Red Cross disaster chair for many years. His father, Jim, who recently moved to Oregon, is known as a dedicated Red Cross volunteer.

Throughout the year, Plank works to get the message out by driving a Red Cross vehicle in community events such as the Pear Festival, Memorial Day, Christmas and 4th of July parades.

Meanwhile, Plank said volunteering with the Red Cross the Mendocino Complex Fire keeps him focused on helping others instead of worrying about what he cannot control

Pamela Baze, volunteer and youth services manager for Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties, said volunteering can help individuals stay positive in hard times, as well as build a sense of community and even new skills.

Wildfires across California have stretched the Red Cross volunteer ranks. To apply online to be an event-based volunteer in the Mendocino Complex area, visit