Melissa Kaplan of Sonoma County Receives Gene Beck Memorial Volunteer of the Year Award

Extraordinary Volunteer Flies Under the Radar

by Marcia Antipa

Melissa Kaplan, Gene Beck Volunteer of the Year, with her Co-Instructor, Bodhi.

“I see my job as being in customer service,” says Melissa Kaplan.

That is putting it mildly. Since Melissa joined the Red Cross in 2006, she has become one of the most dedicated and essential volunteers in the Northern California Coastal Region. She volunteers more than 1,200 hours a year and has performed multiple jobs in her 15 years with the Red Cross.

Fellow volunteer Angela Thompson Hunt nominated Melissa for the Gene Beck Award, named for the long-time volunteer and board member.

“She has worked tirelessly for Red Cross for such a long time and all those behind-the-scenes tasks that let other people make progress. I would not have been able to do the kind of work I’ve done if she wasn’t there with me, backing me up.“

Melissa’s journey to the Red Cross began with a move from Southern California to Sonoma County. She had been diagnosed with a chronic illness and decided to pursue a master’s degree in Education at Sonoma State University since she could not work.

“I have good years and bad years. I spent a good part of the early years bedridden because that’s just the way it was.”

But she was ready to help the Red Cross and began with the Armed Forces Emergency Services, at a time when U.S. soldiers were fighting in Afghanistan. Melissa fielded calls from service members’ families who needed to reach their loved ones to tell them about a new baby or a death in the family.

“That’s how the Red Cross started. It was supporting wounded soldiers on the battlefield and Clara Barton’s Lost Soldiers Office, as families were writing trying to find out what happened to their husband, father, or son who went off to war. I just felt like that was what I had to do.”

Her next role was as a Disaster Action Team (DAT) member responding to home fires.

“I got called out to respond to a mobile home park, where a mobile home had been basically destroyed by fire, and it was an elderly couple. They lost their medical assistive devices, their medications. They just made it out with the clothes they were wearing.”

“I’ve lost a house to fire before, and I know what that’s like, to come home and it’s just charred, so being able to help people in that state and help them on the road to recovery – that’s what a lot of people join the Red Cross to do.”

Melissa decided to step back and let newer volunteers have that experience of working directly with clients. But she stayed in a virtual role, activating Client Cards, which provide funds to people displaced by fire.

“She would pop on her computer in the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning and take care of that particular step so the volunteers out in the field could immediately give that card to the client,” says Angela Thompson Hunt.

Melissa wears many Red Cross hats – working in Staff Services Training and in Blood Services. But first and foremost, she is a passionate technology guru, teaching other volunteers how to access training classes, Microsoft Outlook and Teams.  She says the pandemic has ramped up that work.

“I have talked to more people, and I have been in the presence of more people since April of 2020 than I have been in my last ten years of the Red Cross.”

Melissa shies away from the spotlight. She delayed getting a camera for her computer until, once again, the pandemic changed her mind.

“I lived shelter-in-place for the last 20 years, so for me, it was not a big shift, but I recognize the shift it was for the rest of the world. Getting the camera was my small part of helping with that feeling of connectedness in a very disconnected time.”

Congratulations to Melissa Kaplan!

About the author: Marcia Antipa is a public affairs volunteer with the North Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross.