How Karene Gibbs and her sewing machine support the Red Cross

By Gordon Williams 

Red Cross workers make use of many devices in carrying out their humanitarian mission–from emergency response vehicles to home smoke alarms to water safety gear. For volunteer Karene Gibbs of Walla Walla WA, her device of choice recently was a sewing machine.  

When Covid-19 first struck, and face masks were in short supply, a request came from Jason Matheney, who manages the Services to the Armed Forces (SAF) function in the Red Cross Northwest region. “Jason asked us to make masks,” Karene recalls. “I said ‘yes, I can do that’. I cut patterns until my new sewing machine arrived, and then I sewed masks.”  

Karene says the experience brought back memories of her childhood on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Her grandmother was a seamstress, and Karene remembers seeing her at work on an old-fashioned sewing machine powered by a foot pedal. Later, Karene’s mother took over the machine. “She made all the clothes we wore to church and to school,” Karene says. When Karene left Jamaica to attend college in North Carolina, most of her wardrobe came from her mother’s sewing machine. 

Most of the masks Karene and fellow SAF volunteers sewed went to the local veterans home. The Red Cross volunteers have also helped at Veterans Day parades and run bingo games for the veterans. “We try to help the veterans any way we can,” Karene says.  

If her sewing skills aided the Red Cross when aid was needed the most, making face masks is far from the only service Karene provides for the organization. There is hardly a function the Red Cross carries out in Walla Walla that Karene does not have a hand in. 

She has helped at Red Cross blood drives, and worked with Red Cross clients as a caseworker as part of her chapter’s Disaster Action Team (DAT), which aids victims of such events as home fires. 

Karene deployed to major disasters three times in 2020 — a boots-on-the-ground deployment to floods near Walla Walla before the pandemic struck, and virtual deployments later to wildfires in California and Oregon. 

“I was so excited when I was called out the first time,” she says. “The people affected by the floods were so glad to see us, they greeted us with open arms. I saw people break down in tears when we got there.” 

In the virtual deployments, she worked from her home in Walla Walla to support the needs of wildfire victims, and on a shelter resident transition team. Those teams collect information from Red Cross clients at the disaster scene and help move them into hotels or other housing.

Karene came to the United States the first time in 2008 to attend Western Carolina University where she graduated with honors. Marriage to an American brought her to the U.S. for good in 2012. She came to the Red Cross in Spring 2013. She had been looking for work and not finding anything that appealed to her.

“I needed to rethink what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “I decided I wanted to join an organization that would let me do something for the community.” In the end, she opted for the Red Cross so she could both travel and help people.

It soon turned out that a difficult pregnancy and health issues with her newborn child made Karene the one in need of help.  That help came from her new Red Cross colleagues, “Those ladies had my back,” she says. “They cleaned my house, they did the laundry, they did the shopping, they helped with the baby. They supported me in every way they could.” 

All that care and support helped turn Karene into the active and committed volunteer she is today — active in virtually all the functions the Red Cross carries out in Walla Walla. That includes the hours she spent seated at a sewing machine, much as her mother and grandmother had done before her.  

Join Karene as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. Visit RedCross.org to get started.

American Red Cross Northwest Region

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