A Community of Helpers

Photo by Virginia Becker/American Red Cross

Disaster mental health services are an often lesser-known, behind-the-scenes Red Cross resource that is vitally important to the recovery of families affected by disasters. Equally vital are the disaster mental health volunteers that give their time and expertise in support of those who need them. Enter, Sharon Parker.

Sharon is a dedicated disaster mental health volunteer from Santa Cruz, California. She combines her 30 years of work as a psychotherapist with her humanitarian volunteer service as part of Red Cross disaster responses from coast to coast. Although Santa Cruz County has been the principal beneficiary of her many talents, Sharon’s volunteer work has served countless people both throughout Northern and Central California and across the nation.

“When any of us is affected, we are all affected — either directly or indirectly,” she said. “Individuals and communities need a boost in the wake of a disaster, large or small. I’ve belonged to a community of ‘helpers’ for more than 30 years, and I am proud to be part of an organization that steps in following a devastating event and effectively and impartially plays a direct role in easing people’s suffering.” 

Sharon enjoys being on the ground, reaching affected communities and helping folks move forward after a life-changing event like a disaster. From cooperating with her fellow Red Crossers on a “common mission to be of service”, to seeing the work she does become part of a solution to a difficult life situation, to connecting families with local resources so that they may begin the long road to recovery, the time and energy that Sharon dedicates to the Red Cross mission has resulted in many memories and experiences that have remained with her, even years later.

Another aspect of Sharon’s work as a disaster mental health volunteer is being present and offering support to her colleagues who are also deployed. “For example, if we notice a case worker, or another volunteer who is showing signs of needing a break, we approach them and ask if they’d like to take a brief walk, have a bottle of water, or in some other way give them a bit of respite,” she said. She also makes check-in calls, offering counseling and support when fellow Red Crossers come back home after a deployment.  

For all this work and more, Sharon was recently honored with the Clara Barton Award for Meritorious Volunteer Leadership for the Central Coast Chapter of the Red Cross. Named after the founder of the organization, this special award highlights the significant contributions of volunteers who serve in a series of leadership positions held over a period of years. It is the highest honor of volunteer achievement at the chapter level.

Throughout an ever-changing landscape and advancements in mission delivery and technology, Sharon has met every obstacle with a willingness to learn and adapt, striving to provide better service to those in need.  

“I am humbled by having been nominated for — and then received (!) — the Clara Barton Award for Meritorious Leadership,” she said of the recognition. “This is particularly true because I know very many other volunteers who are truly much more deserving.” 

When asked what advice she would lend to those who may be interested in becoming part of the Red Cross team, she recommends talking with several current volunteers, to gain perspectives regarding the roles they might like to explore. “There really are so many ways to be of service!” she said.

Sharon is a true example of compassion and empathy, and volunteers like her honor the legacy of our founder. Thank you and congratulations on this well-deserved award, Sharon!