JJ Lara, American Red Cross San Francisco 2019 Volunteer of the Year

by Marcia Antipa

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JJ, center front, surrounded by fellow Red Crossers at the 2019 Bay Area Holiday Party. Photo by Eric Carmichael | American Red Cross

“Bringing people together for a great cause and a great organization.”  That’s how JJ Lara describes his role as a volunteer for the American Red Cross, and it is key to his winning the San Francisco Volunteer of the Year award.

From Fleet Week to the Leadership Council, and a few roles that might surprise you, JJ has spent seven years giving to the organization.

Those who nominated JJ for the award wrote, “JJ has become a true leader in the Red Cross, providing exceptional service and dedication to the mission. He has been ready and willing to do what is necessary to help those in need.  Levelheaded and always calm, JJ strives to give the best service to our clients and provides great leadership in any activity.”

JJ Lara’s journey to the Red Cross began when he was a five-year-old immigrant who came to the U.S. from El Salvador with his mother.

“Growing up, I was an only child to a working mom, so I made friends at school, and that was the community for me – getting to know kids from different backgrounds, learning the language, doing my best to fit into the environment.  It was just an early start to understand how important the community was.”

After graduating from Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco, JJ attended U.C. Davis, majoring in International Relations and Affairs.

His working career began at Kaiser Permanente, where he spent 20 years.

“It was a great company,” says JJ.  “It was apparent that what it takes to succeed is good leadership and good people management, so I went down that course.” Now JJ is using those people skills at Oracle as Sr. Learning and Development Manager.

While developing his career, JJ volunteered his time for the community, working with The Asian Pacific American Heritage Foundation and the Lions Club.  Then, seven years ago, he joined the Red Cross. At first, he volunteered as a greeter at the annual Gala.

“I enjoyed it.  It was not just volunteers working well together, but the people who attended as well.  They all had a shared passion for helping those in need.”

The Red Cross soon realized JJ had the skills needed to join the Leadership Council, first as a member of the council, and eventually as Chair.

Fellow Council member Jolinda Sim says, “I’ve enjoyed working with JJ on the San Francisco Leadership Council.  He has always been willing to leverage his many contacts in the community to enhance the work of the Red Cross.”

It was while serving on the Leadership Council that JJ discovered a need for volunteers at San Francisco’s Fleet Week.  JJ helped coordinate the Red Cross presence at the event’s “Humanitarian Village.”  The Red Cross booth stands alongside Fire, Police, Sheriff and Salvation Army displays on San Francisco’s Marina Green during the air show.

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View of the Red Cross tent at the Humanitarian Village at Fleet Week. Photo: Gilbert Gatchalian | American Red Cross

JJ says “It’s a great opportunity to engage with the public.  People are warm and receptive to learning about the Red Cross.  They’re curious about not just what happens in disasters but personally what they can do to prepare.

JJ works hard for the Red Cross, and not just in high-profile volunteer positions.  He also works to help maintain the chapter’s fleet of vehicles, even taking them in for servicing when needed.  JJ says he likes taking care of the cars “so the staff has a vehicle that’s ready to meet the needs of the community.”

And he has no plans to slow down his volunteer commitment.

“For me, the work ahead is to bring in more corporate organizations to help the Red Cross achieve its mission of meeting public needs.”

JJ is working to increase opportunities for companies and their employees to volunteer, such as assembling Red Cross care kits for victims of disasters.  The kits contain toiletries, such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, and other essentials.

Eva Marquez, Volunteer and Youth Services Engagement Manager, says JJ is “an amazing leader, committed to volunteerism and loves serving at the Red Cross. He’s one of the best and most down-to-earth Red Cross volunteers I have ever had in the last 29 years I’ve worked with the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter.”

Those leadership skills shine through in JJ’s advice for new volunteers.  “I think that being a volunteer helps you develop and grow as a person. Whatever your background, you’re part of a group, whether you’re at fleet week, or recruiting more volunteers.”

Congratulations, JJ!

Marcia Antipa is a volunteer writer with the Northern California Coastal Region.