The American Red Cross named Annie Schaefer the 2018 Gene Beck Memorial Volunteer of the Year for Napa County. Though Annie shuns the limelight, her passion and belief in the Red Cross exude with every breath and action she takes on behalf of the agency. This is her story.
Ten years ago, Annie Schaefer worked for a large pharmaceutical company in Napa. The senior team set aside 100K every year to give to important causes, so it was no surprise when a board member from the American Red Cross in St. Helena made a pitch to her company’s leadership in search of additional board members. Annie’s boss recommended her for the job.
“I got a cold call, [this man] shared his experience, and I listened,” Annie reflects. “He asked me about my involvement in or knowledge of the Red Cross. I only had one distant association. My mother was a nurse in the community, and my parents were always active. But the cool thing about the Red Cross was that my Mom volunteered at the summer fair at the first aid station. So I agreed to attend a Board meeting.”
At the time, in 2009, Annie had a son overseas in Iraq. During that Board meeting, the team talked about the work of the Red Cross with military families. “I got a lump in my throat,” she says. “And it became apparent I was one of the only people with a direct link to the military. I bit, and joined the Board.”
As Annie learned more, she started taking classes. She dove into her work as part of the chapter’s Disaster Action Team. Then in 2014, when Annie had taken the helm as the Napa Valley Board Chair, American Red Cross transformed its local operations nationally to meet the growing demands for services while making the best use of donor dollars. In the new chapter design principle, a chapter must serve a minimum population of 340,000. This led to the consolidation of many smaller Red Cross chapters into fewer larger ones, hence the birth of California Northwest. A year later, Annie was the last remaining Napa Valley Board member. “The timing couldn’t have been worse,” she says. “My primary concern was to keep the Red Cross front and center and to let people know we weren’t going anywhere.”
Annie says the timing was challenging. In the middle of all the transitions of structures and roles, the area was hit with a couple of major disasters. The 2014 earthquake destroyed the Napa office, even though St. Helena’s survived. And then the wildfires of 2015 ravaged the northern counties. “Twelve hundred people showed up in 48 hours at the Calistoga fairgrounds,” she recalls. “And that’s when we got the hit. People said, ‘the Red Cross doesn’t know what they’re doing’ and people were left with a bad taste in their mouths. But everyone was at fault; the entire region – government, nonprofits, Red Cross, companies, residents – was unprepared and overwhelmed.”
Why did Annie stick with it in spite of challenging feedback and community misperceptions? “I thought: these are my people,” she says. “It’s the personal piece of it that makes it worthwhile. My community is what kept me coming back. Even when it became the most grim.”
Annie recalls, “When I helped open the mass care shelter in 2015, a very gentle retired fellow came up to me. It was quiet, and he smiled and said ‘ya know, I’ve always donated to the Red Cross so now I get the payback.’ And it’s because of our [donors and volunteers] that we can provide for people who need us.”
When asked what she would tell potential volunteers for the Red Cross, Annie replied “You can’t measure the warmth. When you give something, don’t look for what you get out of it, look for how it makes you feel. Get the whole story – go out on a call – you can watch and see what happens.”
For information about how you can become a volunteer with the American Red Cross, please visit this web page.