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Janet Packer has been a dedicated volunteer since Katrina

By Fleur Williams


Janet Packer, right, recipient of a Clara Barton Award, is pictured with Michele Averill, CEO of the Central Coast Chapter. (Photo: Jim Hobbs)

One early morning in 2005, Janet Packer watched from her home in Aptos, California as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina played out on the TV news. Packer was immediately moved to respond, driving to the American Red Cross’s Santa Cruz office and arriving just as the doors opened at 8:30 a.m. “I’ll do anything you need me to do,” she said.

Shocked by the storm’s impact and inspired by the volunteers she saw stepping forward in the office, Packer knew she wanted to do more. So by 2 that afternoon, she called her husband Vern and said, “I want to go.”

“I knew you would,” she recalls Vern saying.

One week later, Packer was deployed to Mississippi as a Disaster Relief volunteer. Since then, she has been deployed more than 30 times to assist with national-level disaster relief operations throughout California and in many other states.

Earlier this year, Packer was honored with a Clara Barton Award at the annual Volunteer Recognition Dinner for Central Coast Chapter volunteers. Named after the organization’s founder, the award recognizes a Red Cross volunteer for service in a series of leadership positions held over a number of years.

As someone who makes the easing of suffering, loss, and displacement part of her life’s work, Packer is a true reflection of Clara Barton and all the Red Cross stands for. She feels compelled to care for people in need without hesitation, and with equal attention and emotional support for all.

Before joining the Red Cross, Packer volunteered for other causes, including as a “Pink Lady” in a local hospital’s ICU and recovery room. But since Katrina, her volunteer focus has been with the Red Cross; she has filled many diverse roles, most recently as a Client Casework Lead for the Central Coast Chapter.

In the Q&A that follows, we caught up with Janet so that we could get a better sense of what makes her choose to respond to a house fire in the middle of the night, drive an Emergency Response Vehicle across the country for a flood, and just bring her tireless motivation and compassion to help others in their time of need.

What inspires you about participating in the Disaster Relief line of service?

There’s something really deep and precious that happens when you help someone. Almost every time I’ve been deployed, someone has said “I can’t believe you’ve come here for me.” An important part of the Red Cross is that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, or what you believe … we’re there for everybody.

Sometimes people are afraid to come to us for help for a variety of reasons. But nothing bad will happen to anyone seeking shelter from us. Sometimes all we can do, given the circumstances, is to refer a client to another organization. But to me, that’s still big, because it’s one more step to helping that person with his or her recovery.

When I’ve been deployed to assist with Staff Services, I’ve also been able to meet many other volunteers during in- and out-processing. It has been wonderful to greet them and honor their work. I’m also honored to do the work I do from my office sending people out to disaster sites because the need for help just doesn’t stop. I can’t not be where I’m needed — it just feels too important to not pitch in.

What are some of the challenging and uplifting moments you’ve experienced?

Although it can be challenging to move around to different locations or stay in different shelters when you’re deployed, I figure the people I’m helping don’t have a safe home to return to, whereas I’m coming back to one. And, you end up meeting so many great people. I can think of many shelters that tug at my heart because of the wonderful people I was there with.

I didn’t have a lot of experience driving the ERV [Emergency Response Vehicle]. But I took the Red Cross training and made myself available to drive it across the country, and it was such a privilege to drive that vehicle. Long before I joined the Red Cross I would look at an ERV and know it meant “help” and that’s what we were bringing. Maybe the people we were helping were freezing, and we would bring them their only hot meal of the day. There was a little boy who would exclaim “the X-Men are coming with food!” whenever he’d see the ERV coming because the Red Cross symbol reminded him of the comic book superheroes. Another time, we came across a lady trying to stay warm in her car, and she was so thankful just to receive an extra blanket from us. You don’t go help because you’re expecting to get anything in return. But you end up getting so much from those moments.

What advice would you give people interested in volunteering with Disaster Relief?

I’d encourage them to talk to other volunteers, take some training to see if it fits for them, and give it a try. I remember the first time I was deployed I showed up with big boots, extra water, and no clue of what to expect or where I’d end up. And … it was wonderful! Sometimes it’s harder physically or emotionally than other times, but the support you get is huge. There are nurses and mental health volunteers who call the volunteers after we return home to see how we’re doing. You never know when you might need it, but when we deploy, the Red Cross supports both the clients and the staff.

What does being a recipient of this award mean to you?

I just have a huge desire to serve, and I don’t have a desire to go to any other organization to do it. I’m happy doing what I’m doing. When I first started volunteering in 2005, Vern and I were busy watching our grandkids and owning a local business. When I started volunteering and was deployed, my family helped with everything at home. I may have been the one who deployed, but it wasn’t just me. It was the support from everybody that made it possible.

I don’t know why I was selected to receive the Clara Barton Award because I think of so many other deserving local volunteers or philanthropists who are doing amazing work for the Red Cross. I just know I love what I do. I love the people I work with, both here in California and elsewhere when I deploy out of state. I’ve made so many lovely friends over the years. When it all comes down to it, I feel very honored and blessed to get the award, but I’m just a simple person doing the best I can — and I love it.


Become a Red Cross Volunteer: You can make a difference in Monterey, San Benito, or Santa Cruz County by becoming a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Volunteers constitute about 94 percent of the total Red Cross workforce to carry out our humanitarian work. Red Cross volunteers are trained to meet the needs of those affected by disasters, providing food, shelter, and comfort for families affected by major disasters such as fires, floods, and earthquakes as well as helping local residents prepare for and recover from emergencies of all kinds. We’ll find the position that appeals to you and allows you to use your skills and talents. Email to get started.

About the Author: Fleur Williams is a volunteer writer for the Central Coast Chapter of the American Red Cross. A resident of Aptos, Fleur is a freelance writer with a focus on the arts, culture, and humanity.


Red Cross supports Fleet Week Humanitarian Village

By Larry Dietz


The Red Cross set up a station in “Humanitarian Assistance Village” at Fleet Week. Fleet Week is an important event for the Red Cross as it helps to fulfill our mission for community readiness and preparedness for disasters, to connect and support our armed forces, and increase access to lifesaving blood and blood products. (Photo by: Albert Becker, American Red Cross)

See all photos

San Francisco has always had a special relationship with the US Navy. One example of that is San Francisco Fleet Week (SFFW), which began in 1981. The annual celebration of America’s sea services takes place over Italian Heritage Weekend in October on the Marina Green.

Through its core mission of Support to Armed Forces (SAF), the American Red Cross has been a consistent and strong supporter of Fleet Week. Read more

Red Cross response to Mendocino Complex Fire

As of Friday, August 17, 2018, 12:00 p.m.
For information on Red Cross services, call the 2018 Northern California Fire Storms Hotline at 855-558-1116.


Jordan Innes, 8, is glad that he can be with his pets while he is staying at the Lower Lake High School shelter. (Photo: Virginia Becker, American Red Cross)

For more photos, please go to this Flickr site.

Read some of our client and volunteer stories from this disaster relief operation. 

 California Northwest Chapter Executive Director Jeff Baumgartner address concerns about the Red Cross response in this blog post.

Three weeks after the Mendocino Complex Fire erupted in northern California, the Red Cross is there as communities recover, making sure people get the help they need as they cope with the aftermath of these deadly fires. According to officials, the Mendocino Complex Fire, which includes the River Fire and the Ranch Fire, which is 76% contained, has burned more than 378,000 acres and destroyed 157 homes in Lake County.

Alongside many community members and partners, 374 Red Cross disaster workers, most of whom are volunteers, continue to support to people whose lives have been turned upside-down by these wildfires. To date, Red Cross has:

  • Provided 5,418 overnight shelter stays
  • Served with generous feeding partners more than 24,500 meals and more than 42,000 snacks.
  • Distributed 9,687 clean-up kits, comfort kits, and other disaster emergency supply items.
  • Opened 83 cases helping 189 residents with destroyed or damaged homes.
  • Provided more than 5,400 Health Services contacts and more than 3,000 Mental Health Services contacts.

Disasters like these deadly wildfires create more needs than any one organization can meet on their own. The Red Cross is working with a large team of partners to help residents move through the recovery process by connecting them to critical services and resources they need to get back on their feet.

  • Red Cross caseworkers are meeting one-on-one with people providing them an opportunity to share their needs, ask questions, and—for those who qualify—obtain financial assistance.
  • Red Cross disaster workers are also providing health services such as replacing lost medications and eyeglasses, emotional support and spiritual care.
  • Recovering from a disaster can be a confusing, emotionally draining and complicated process. Red Cross caseworkers are trained to help people create recovery plans and connect people with the services and resources they need.



(Photo: Albert Becker, American Red Cross)

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