By Kathy Hartman, American Red Cross Volunteer
Amber Lee’s desire to volunteer for the Red Cross was born out of tragedy. In 2014, an unstable hill collapsed in Oso, WA, creating a massive mudslide that caused 43 deaths. Two of them were Amber’s friends. Over the coming days, she realized the event would be the impetus for changing her life profoundly.
She was supposed to be in Oso that day with her friend but got called in to work at the last minute. Amber says, “It felt like it was a near miss for a reason and I needed to be doing something different with my world and my life.”
In Oso, she saw the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and rescue workers in action. Observing firsthand how much they were helping the community, she thought, “I have to be a part of that.”
Amber realized her job at the time didn’t give her the satisfaction of helping others, so at 42 years old, she changed her career and life goals.
She took an emergency management class and says the first two weeks of that class determined the trajectory of her life. Now she’s a full-time student at Western Oregon University and is working toward two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree.
She started volunteering for the Red Cross in November 2021 and is active with the Disaster Action Team (DAT), Mass Care (which provides services to the community as a whole, including feeding, sheltering, reunification, and distribution of emergency supplies), and Disability Integration (which ensures that people who are disabled or have special needs are taken care of during a disaster). She also photographs events for the fundraising team, including the 2022 Red Cross Golf Tournament in Bellingham, WA, which she really enjoyed.
Her favorite part about being a Red Cross volunteer is being face to face with people in the field. “The whole reason that I do what I do is those moments of impact. They might be something small in the spectrum of the bigger picture, but it really means something to that person in that moment.”
One of those moments of impact happened at an apartment fire in Seattle. In the Red Cross shelter, Amber says she noticed a woman who seemed to be having a hard time. Amber wanted to get her mind off the fire, so she asked the woman about things she liked to do. The client talked about her artwork, which she stopped doing because of criticism from others. It was her outlet for stress. Amber told her that the art isn’t for others, it’s for her, and she encouraged the woman to start drawing again.
The next day at the shelter, Amber saw the woman drawing—for the first time in 10 years. She told Amber it was making her feel better, which touched Amber deeply. “It was that moment of impact, one conversation that made a difference,” she says. “And that to me was everything.”
When the Red Cross deployed her to New Mexico to help people affected by the wildfires, a FEMA regional director saw Amber working and was impressed. They contacted her about a job at FEMA—a place she says she wanted to get into for four years. “That would never have been possible if it weren’t for the Red Cross deployment,” she says. “I would never have had the opportunity to work side by side with FEMA.”
She’s now a FEMA reservist, on call for disasters, and she works full time with the City of Marysville as an AmeriCorps emergency management outreach specialist. She also attends a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training two evenings a week.
In her free time, Amber runs two small businesses. She loves gardening, photography, hiking, and is an avid waterfall chaser. She has four daughters and seven grandchildren (with an eighth on the way!), and she takes care of her dad, who’s in a wheelchair.
Amber continues to work on her goals because she wants to be able to look back and know she made a difference in people’s lives. “I have a lot of motivation for doing what I’m doing,” she explains. “Whenever I get tired or start dragging, there’s one particular picture from Oso that I always pull up in my mind, and it kind of gives me my second wind. I think that helps me refocus on why I’m doing what I’m doing.”