By Gordon Williams
It takes willing hands and compassion to carry out the Red Cross mission of aiding disaster victims and managing the nation’s blood supply. But it also takes a ton of technology to make sure that mission is carried out effectively and efficiently.
Volunteer Sharon Andrews of Spokane WA says she knew nothing about technology when she first joined the Red Cross in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But she learned on the job and after years of working with Red Cross Disaster Services Technology (DST) teams, she will now join the Red Cross National Headquarters Information Technology (IT) team.
Sharon’s new title is Volunteer Partner to the manager of the Red Cross IT End User Services (EUS) Volunteer Support Program. That is a mouthful, and some explaining is required to understand what the job is all about.
There are two main technology functions within the Red Cross — Disaster Services (DST) which supports Red Cross teams at national disaster scenes, and IT End User Service which supports the computers and related gear used by the Red Cross day-to-day.
Not all DST workers need to be technologically skilled. The emphasis is on creating networks that only need to serve during a disaster response. The IT function demands technology skills since it builds websites and networks meant to last. Because she was a technology novice, Sharon started with DST.
The idea behind the IT End User Services Volunteer Support program, Sharon says, “is to integrate volunteers into the day-to-day IT operations of the Red Cross. We have over 100 volunteers in the program and we are growing.” It is a tribute to the technology skills Sharon has developed that she was offered a key position in the national IT team.
Red Cross employee Yvonne Gapa manages the End User Support Program from her home in New Hampshire. Sharon’s role will be “to stand in for Yvonne when she needs me to, and to manage the Volunteer Coordinators who work with the volunteers serving within Red Cross IT departments.” Sharon will stay in Spokane — and remain a volunteer.
Sharon grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, 100 miles south of Spokane. From childhood on, she had a desire to be where the excitement was — including a hitch as volunteer firefighter in Lewiston. She hoped to one day live in a big city, and Spokane was the nearest big city. “I always wanted to live in Spokane,” she says. She moved there in the summer of 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina put her life on a different path.
Katrina was the big news story when Sharon drove home to Lewiston to visit her family. “We were watching on TV the devastation caused by Katrina, and Gail McGovern [Red Cross national president and CEO] came on the news pleading for volunteers. “I told my mother, ‘I have to go.’ ”
When her mother urged caution, Sharon says she replied, “ ‘If you were my age, would you want to go?’ Mom told me to be careful, and I went.”
She went to the Red Cross office in Spokane, not really knowing all the things the Red Cross did. “All I really knew about the Red Cross was that they collected blood,” she says. “I didn’t know there was more to the Red Cross than that.” In the end, her deployment to Katina was not to New Orleans but to Falls Church VA, where she worked in a Red Cross call center.
Since then she has deployed to disasters more than 30 times. She has gone to Hawaii four times, to storms in the Virgin Islands, wildfires in California many times and to New York for superstorm Sandy. She has also been a disaster responder for her Greater Inland Northwest chapter and serves on the Red Cross Pacific Division’s Disaster Response Maintenance Team — skilled leaders who respond to potentially large disasters.
As for where and how she gained her skills in technology, Sharon says, “All of my IT education is from the Red Cross.” The on-the-job learning began in earnest when the Red Cross bought a fleet of emergency communications response vehicles (ECRV). They provided state-of-the-art communications for use at disasters.
There were a dozen such vehicles, placed so no Red Cross chapter was more than five hours from an ECRV. One was in Spokane. That caught Sharon’s fancy. The ECRVs were retired some years ago, but Sharon’s fascination with technology has never cooled.
Over the years, she has been the DST lead for her chapter, for the Northwest Region (Washington and Idaho) and the Pacific Division (the West Coast states and the Pacific Islands). “I will remain in DST for now, but will continue to immerse myself in the National IT End-User Support program,” she says.
What keeps Sharon on the job year after year is her deep commitment to the Red Cross. “I love the Red Cross,” she says. “I love everything the Red Cross is about. I cannot think of another organization that gives volunteers the opportunity to learn from highly educated and skilled volunteers who enjoy sharing their knowledge.”