A Life of Principled Volunteerism

By John Lindner

Irene Johnson

If Irene Johnson could live her life to perfection, she would be guided by the Seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. “The principles really resonated with me. I really do believe in the Red Cross mission,” she said.

Those principles have served Irene well over her many years as a Red Cross volunteer where she’s participated in 26 disaster response deployments including Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Napa/Sonoma New Year’s flood (2006), Superstorm Sandy (2012), the Alberta wildfires (2016) and Hurricane Irma (2017), to name a few.

Irene’s Red Cross career began in Vietnam during the war. Living in Saigon in 1967, Irene volunteered at an army hospital where she would deliver books to bedridden soldiers. She speaks fondly of that first experience. “The guys that were almost well enough to leave would go to the recreation room and taught me how to play pool.”

Irene returned to the US in 1968 and volunteered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center while attending the University of Maryland. She relocated to her native California where she volunteered at the former Letterman Army Hospital at the Presidio while attending the College of Marin.

After graduating with a degree in education, Irene taught students at the junior high and high school levels for decades in Los Angeles and Vallejo, up until her retirement.

Hurricane Katrina brought Irene back to the Red Cross in 2005. “I was so astounded by the devastation,” she said. She volunteered with the Napa County Red Cross in staff services and was eventually hired as a part-time worker, taking advantage of a lot of the different training courses offered.  

Irene continued her Red Cross volunteerism after moving to San Diego where she did case work. She took to the role, and was promoted to the lead case worker. In 2013, Irene received the “All Star Instructor Award” for her training of case workers and the following year received the “Spirit of Volunteerism Award” after leading the case work during a bad San Diego wildfire.

Hurricane Irma was Irene’s toughest deployment. She vividly recalls bulldozers pushing the remnants of people’s lives into huge piles. “The magnitude of Irma was incredible,” she said. But the tough times are overshadowed by great memories working with many other case workers. “They were phenomenal,” says Johnson, “we all loved each other and stuck together through the hard times.”

COVID-19 has forced Irene into remote case work, but in speaking with her, it’s clear she is ready to get back out into the community.

Irene recalls one deployment when she was working the night shift in a shelter during a California wildfire. A Cal Fire representative periodically entered the shelter to inform some people they could return to their homes. Eventually only a small group was left in the shelter including Irene, an older woman and a 15-year-old girl with three much younger siblings. “We were three generations of women listening to 60’s rock & roll and playing cards. All of us were taking care of each other at that time.”

In speaking with Irene Johnson, it’s impossible not to see that her life has been, and continues to be, guided by those Red Cross principles that she holds so dearly.

John Lindner is a volunteer writer with the Northern California Coastal Region.