Elaine Clyburn was enjoying herself at a music festival in Memphis, Tennessee, recently when tornado sirens sounded. Major flooding and tornadoes followed that siren, and Clyburn reported to the American Red Cross disaster operation in Tennessee as the job director.
This is not her first assignment. Clyburn has been with the Red Cross in one capacity or another for 41 years.
Wartime Experience Her relationship with the Red Cross began in 1969, a time of national unrest in the United States. The country was involved in the Vietnam War. Clyburn had a master’s degree in social work and worked as a family counselor, school social worker and civil rights activist. A 19-year-old friend of hers returned from the war needing psychiatric treatment, and this inspired her to look for a civilian job opportunity in Vietnam.
Clyburn learned that the Red Cross sent people to Vietnam, and she pursued a job in the Red Cross Service to Armed Forces and Veterans (SAFV) program, where she worked in the military hospital division. She was dispatched to the 25th Infantry Division Hospital near Cu Chi, Republic of Vietnam, where she served as the hospital field director.
Her tour in Vietnam lasted a year. However, she remained in the SAFV program when she returned to the states at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, New York, and was later reassigned as director to military families in Alexandria, Virginia.
Clyburn resigned her post with the Red Cross when she was offered an opportunity to teach and develop the undergraduate social work curriculum at Colorado State University. However, she continued as a volunteer consultant for the SAFV program, working with chapters, developing training materials, and recruiting volunteers for the Red Cross Service to Military Families program. She continued to volunteer for the next 17 years.
New Challenges During her time in Colorado, Clyburn experienced the Big Thompson Canyon flood, which sparked her interest in Red Cross disaster services. She became involved in the Red Cross relief operation during that flood, and 55 disaster relief operations later, she is still volunteering.
Clyburn left Colorado and returned to the Red Cross as a national headquarters staffer. Ultimately, she became director of disaster services for the Midwestern Operations Headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri. She then served in Memphis in the Disaster Planning and Evaluation Department. She worked with eight states and as a liaison to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), helping chapters in that area plan their response to disasters.
After the September 11 attack, Clyburn spent almost a year in Washington, D.C., as interim director of the Disaster Operations Center. Before retiring in 2008, she served as chapter solutions manager for the state of Tennessee. Though retired, she continues to volunteer for the Red Cross.
Recalling her many memories of her Red Cross years, Clyburn spoke of one experience that still brings tears to her eyes. A disaster took her to a remote rural area of Illinois called Little Egypt. The residents took the Red Cross responders into their hearts and homes. As the disaster played out and volunteers began to go home, Little Egypt community members told the responders that they were welcome to move to the area, that the Red Crossers had been adopted as family to that community.
She continues to be amazed at how Red Cross volunteers could be doing other things but choose to leave their lives behind to help others. “It is really what makes our organization work,” she said.