Volunteer lifts morale of all around her

Deborah Torres knew she wanted to volunteer for the Red Cross even before she retired from San Mateo County, where she ended a long career in social services and public mental health in 2013. Not long before her retirement, Torres found herself partnering with the Red Cross after two large fires destroyed two apartment buildings in Redwood City. The Red Cross had opened a shelter at the armory near Red Morton Park for people displaced by the fires and was helping them figure out their paths to recovery. “I got to see [the Red Cross] in action,” Torres said.

“I told myself when I started working with Red Cross, that when I retire that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Just three months after her September 2013 retirement, Torres became a Red Cross volunteer.

And this year, Torres was named the Red Cross Volunteer of the Year for San Mateo County.

“I was totally surprised [to receive the award],” Torres said. However, her fellow volunteers were not surprised. Torres’s background in social services and mental health and as a bilingual Latina with decades of experience working in the county make her invaluable.

Rita Ewing, San Mateo County’s disaster program manager, said Torres was especially valuable to the Red Cross during the CZU Lightening Complex wildfires in San Mateo County in late summer 2020. Ewing said that as a retired mental health professional, Torres “goes above and beyond in the compassion she expresses.” Ewing said Torres demonstrates compassion not only to those affected by a disaster, but to fellow volunteers and to the Red Cross’ partners. Ewing says it “makes a tremendous impact in affecting the morale.”

Torres herself gives a lot of credit to her fellow San Mateo County Red Crossers. “They’re so incredibly committed and kind,” she said. The Red Crossers who work hands-on doing things like setting up and staffing shelters, installing smoke alarms and teaching about fire safety as part of the Sound the Alarm program, and the Latino Engagement Team are “committed, they’re kind, they’re talented, they’re respectful of the folks,” she said. “They communicate with each other. It’s a team.”

Torres said that team is always there for her. “I never feel like I’m out there on my own,” she said. “People check in on each other, they support each other.”

“They’re fun, too,” Torres said.

Torres said she is also inspired by the people affected by disasters who the Red Cross works with. “People are resilient. People are grateful. People are humble,” she said. She went on to say that even through devastating circumstances, the people the Red Cross helps ”are so appreciative.”

“My spirits are lifted by their resiliency,” she said.

Torres was born and raised in the Ingleside neighborhood of San Francisco, one of five children of parents who immigrated from Mexico. Her parents took in foster children, more than 100 over time, Torres said, inspiring her to go into the social welfare field.

Torres’s career included working with those recently released from the state hospital in Sonoma County and with adults and children with serious mental illness in San Francisco’s Mission District before working for San Mateo County in 1986. She was the director of mental health services for the county and for the last year and a half before her retirement, director of child welfare services.

Torres has two adult children and is a recent new grandmother. In addition to volunteering for the Red Cross she is on the board of directors of the Multicultural Institute, which works with immigrants, especially day laborers, and is the community representative on San Mateo County’s medical center board. She’s lived in San Mateo County since 1981.

“I’ve learned so much about the Red Cross,” Torres said of her years as a volunteer. “You hear the impact” from those the Red Cross helps. She’s been told, Torres said: “The Red Cross…they’re here for you right away.”

She’s helping to make sure that continues to happen.

About the author: Barbara Wood is a San Mateo County Red Cross volunteer.