Andy Witthohn has a long history of volunteerism and service work spanning multiple continents, industries, and community needs. Born in Bangor, ME, Andy studied in Nairobi, served in the Peace Corps in Somalia, and taught school – mostly kindergarten – for 20 years in Sonoma County. He finished his professional career advocating for teachers with the California Teachers Association.
In December 2020, he received the Gene Beck Memorial Volunteer of the Year award for his extensive efforts with the American Red Cross during the devastating Kincade Fire in 2019.
His peers were quick to gush.
“Not afraid to try new things or take on new challenges, Andy quickly became one of our most steadfast and reliable volunteers in the Napa-Sonoma Territory,” said Angela Hunt, volunteer for the Northern California Coastal Region and presenter of the award. “With his energetic spirit and constant good humor, he made short work of any project he took on, and he’s taken on quite a few. We’re so appreciative for everything he does.”
After speaking with Dave Dorman for 30 minutes, you might wonder if he does anything else outside of the Red Cross. He’s a self-described “semi-full-time volunteer.” This same unwavering dedication earned him the Regional Volunteer of the Year Award.
While he’s officially been a proud Red Cross volunteer since 1984, Dave’s first contact with the Red Cross occurred during water safety instructor and lifeguard training in the 1950s. In the 1970s, he taught first aid and artificial respiration for his employer and discovered his Red Cross calling. He would eventually gravitate to disaster operations, and more specifically, to logistics support: acquiring, organizing, and delivering materials during a disaster.
In 1991, during the Oakland Hills Fire, Jane Jennings had her first interaction with the American Red Cross. “They were running shelters for the county, and as a county worker, I was asked to be involved in the shelter. [My experience] convinced me that when I retired, I wanted to go back with the Red Cross,” says Jennings. Now, almost thirty years later, Jennings has won the Red Cross’s highest volunteer award, the Clara Barton Meritorious Leadership Award.
After retiring from a career filled with case management as a Probation Officer, Jennings found a natural transition, pivoting into a caseworker under the Disaster Action Team (DAT) for the Red Cross. “Now it’s called recovery,” explains Jennings, “but the normal casework is following up on DAT calls. DAT goes out, gives immediate assistance, and within the next day, casework starts following up with the client and writing referrals and assistance…it takes training and developing a comfort level. It’s not a job that’s impossible to do; it’s just, is that the role you’re comfortable doing?” Luckily for the Red Cross, it is a job Jennings has been comfortable performing for twenty years.
From the ashes of wildfires rise everyday heroes. Betsy Witthohn is one of them.
After reaching safety, the fire survivor recounts how time stood still two years ago until mandatory evacuation orders were lifted. Her mind was preoccupied with anxiety as she feared for the worst.
Returning to the area, she found the flames spared her residence. Many nearby were not as fortunate. That experience served as a catalyst to becoming a Red Cross volunteer. Her husband joined, as well.
Smoke from the nearby Kincade Fire mars the California blue sky. Photo by Lindsay Peak, American Red Cross
To see more stories related to the Red Cross response to the Kincade Fire, please go here or see list of stories, below.
[Updated November 4, 2019] More than 400 Red Cross workers alongside government and community partners are providing shelters, meals, health services, comfort and other support for affected residents.
More than 6,500 people stayed in Red Cross and community shelters in Northern California. With the lifting of evacuations orders, all shelters have been closed.
With partners, the Red Cross has served more than 51,000 meals and snacks, provided more than 2,500 relief items, and made more than 2,800 individual care contacts.
This week, at the Local Assistance Center, affected families can meet one-on-one with trained Red Cross caseworkers who will assess their disaster-caused needs, offer recovery information, help with medication and eyeglass replacement and other emergency needs, and referrals to other agencies. Financial assistance is also available to those whose home was destroyed or had major damage.
This is another in a series of stories we are posting on this regional blog related to the American Red Cross response to the Kincade Fire disaster:
Corazon Healdsburg bilingual volunteers (left) Norma Gomez and Luisa Fernandez-Palacios staff a desk inside the evacuation shelter at the Sonoma County Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa on Oct. 30. Photo credit: American Red Cross|Barbara Wood
Local nonprofit and Red Cross partner Corazón Healdsburg offered a crucial point of contact for Latinx families during the Kincade Fire. The organization staffed Red Cross shelters in Sonoma and Marin counties with bilingual volunteers. They met with displaced Spanish-speaking families or those who were adversely affected. For some, it was the only point of contact with whom they felt comfortable.
Since 2016, Corazón Healdsburg has worked diligently in the Latinx community to create resources and a safety net for low-income families to thrive. Their programs range from financial literacy to first-generation college counseling. So when disaster struck, many in the community already knew where to go: The Healdsburg Community Center.