Human connection: the heart of the Red Cross

Debbie Yee, Jane Jennings, and Ellen Armosino at a 2019 Red Cross event | Red Cross photographer: Ritch Davidson.

In 1991, during the Oakland Hills Fire, Jane Jennings had her first interaction with the American Red Cross. “They were running shelters for the county, and as a county worker, I was asked to be involved in the shelter. [My experience] convinced me that when I retired, I wanted to go back with the Red Cross,” says Jennings. Now, almost thirty years later, Jennings has won the Red Cross’s highest volunteer award, the Clara Barton Meritorious Leadership Award.

After retiring from a career filled with case management as a Probation Officer, Jennings found a natural transition, pivoting into a caseworker under the Disaster Action Team (DAT) for the Red Cross. “Now it’s called recovery,” explains Jennings, “but the normal casework is following up on DAT calls. DAT goes out, gives immediate assistance, and within the next day, casework starts following up with the client and writing referrals and assistance…it takes training and developing a comfort level. It’s not a job that’s impossible to do; it’s just, is that the role you’re comfortable doing?” Luckily for the Red Cross, it is a job Jennings has been comfortable performing for twenty years.

Jennings has moved into various roles throughout her time at the Red Cross, from the call center to government operations, to her current position as Regional Deployment Team Lead— all the while continuing in her commitment as a caseworker for DAT. As someone who naturally strives to leave a place, person, process, or situation better than she found it, Jennings has sought ways to better the volunteer infrastructure. Specifically, she helped develop a spreadsheet process for tracking volunteers at mass care shelters. “During the Kincade fire, we experimented with better coordination with mass care to know where folks are located, to keep better track of them… [the spreadsheet process keeps] track of the mass care volunteers because they get moved frequently.”

In addition to her other duties, Jennings is willing to be deployed when disaster strikes. “This year has been an unusual year,” starts Jennings, “I did two deployments virtually…I think it’s almost harder to do a virtual deployment than to be deployed on the ground because you’re at home, you expect to do your home chores, your family expects that as well, so you find yourself working double-time…plus you can get very isolated.”

Jennings’ reflection is a sentiment most volunteers and humans can relate to during this current time. As she explains, it’s the human connection that makes the Red Cross so meaningful. “I like giving back to the community,” she says. “I like the interactions with the clients, and I also like the interaction with a lot of the wonderful Red crossers. I’ve made a lot of friends over time… it really is the people that make the Red Cross. There are some fantastic people who are working very hard, and that’s what keeps me involved.”

Congratulations on this much deserved award and for twenty years of volunteering, Jane. We are all looking forward to volunteering in person, together, again.

Sarah Ward is a volunteer writer with the Northern California Coastal Region.