By Gordon Williams
Employees and volunteers come to the American Red Cross from many diverse backgrounds. Even so, Dan Wirth, the new chapter executive director serving South Puget Sound and Olympics, is surely the only one to have managed a youth soccer program in the West African island nation of Equatorial Guinea.
“The real aim of Grass Roots Soccer,” Dan explains, “is to use the sport to teach basic life skills to young people.” He first encountered the program during his years with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. The fluency in Spanish he gained in the Dominican Republic helped in Equatorial Guinea, since it is the only Spanish-speaking nation in Africa.
He returned to the United States in 2014, and has been with the Red Cross ever since. He takes on his new post at a time of transition within the Red Cross. The Red Cross is realigning regions, reducing overlap and making sure resources are positioned where they are most often needed.
The newly formed South Puget Sound and Olympics (SPSO) chapter, headquartered in Tacoma, is one of five that now make up the Red Cross Northwest Region. SPSO is the result of a merger between the South Puget Sound and the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas chapters, and will cover eight Western Washington counties lying south and west of Puget Sound.
The region served by this new chapter is complex. It includes mountains, a national park and a national forest. It includes mostly urban Kitsap and Pierce counties, and also mostly rural Clallam County. The chapter has a huge military footprint — with Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, major naval bases in Bremerton and Bangor, and the sprawling Joint Base Lewis-McChord Army/Air Force base.
The chapter is also home to Camp Murray, headquarters of the the Washington Army and Air Force National Guard and the state’s Emergency Management Division.
Dan points out it won’t be the first time he has managed Red Cross operations over a large stretch of land. He came to Tacoma after four years as Regional Disaster Officer for the state of Kentucky. “I served 119 counties in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, covering mountains and canyons and farmland,” he says. Dan was born in Indianapolis but went to graduate school in Montana. “Their program in Intercultural Youth and Family Development was just what I was looking for,” he says.
He and his wife wanted to spend time overseas before they settled down. When he finished the Montana program, they joined the Peace Corps. After two years in the Peace Corps, it was time to come home and find a job.
“I wanted a job with a non-profit, and I wanted to go back to the Midwest to be close to my family,” he says. “I had 18 job interviews and got three job offers,” he says. “One of the job offers was from the Red Cross, and I took it.”
His first Red Cross job was as Direct Services Support Manager for 87 Indiana counties. That made him regional lead for disaster preparedness, mass care and recovery management. Dan admits not knowing much about the Red Cross before signing up. “Two things happened that made me fall in love with the job,” he says.
The first was being deployed to flooding in Texas. “Being on the ground and seeing what the Red Cross was doing to support clients really hooked me,” he says. In all, Dan has deployed to seven or eight major disasters, including hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Maria in Puerto Rico, plus several more localized events.
The second development came because Dan came on board just as the Red Cross was launching its Home Fire campaign, aimed at cutting home fire deaths by installing smoke alarms in homes that don’t have them. A smoke alarm he helped install subsequently saved a life. “It took just 15 minutes of our time installing the alarm, but it resulted in a life being saved,” he says. “That solidified my belief in the Red Cross.”
He comes to his new posting just in time to lead his chapter through Sound the Alarm — the 2020 iteration of the Home Fire campaign, which will run from April 18 to May 3.
He moved up to his Kentucky regional post in 2016, and started in Tacoma in January. He calls the new posting, and the challenges it poses, “a tremendous career opportunity” and “the most exciting thing ever for me.”
In the new job, Dan will be the public face of the Red Cross throughout much of Western Washington. That is the professional side of his new job — representing the Red Cross to local communities, volunteers and potential donors. There is a lifestyle side to the new job as well. Dan says he welcomes the opportunity to “live and work in such beautiful country.”