The expression "you make your own luck" certainly applies to Isabel Walker, a longtime resident of Palo Alto. Modestly, Walker says she has been very fortunate to have so many interesting doors open for her in her 87 years; but after talking with her, one gets the impression that Walker might have fearlessly knocked the doors down if they hadn't opened.
That's certainly true of her long life with the American Red Cross, which began for Walker — at the impressionable age of 10 — in her hometown of Wilmington, Massachusetts. "Back then, the Red Cross held door-to-door drives that my mother helped with," she says. "One year, my mother suggested that I take her place and just do it for her. Thanks to one stranger's $50 contribution, which was a lot of money back then, I collected more money than my mother ever had." The young girl was subsequently honored by the organization at a meeting in nearby Lowell; the year was 1938.
Walker reflects back on that early experience and credits her mother with seeing something in her daughter that the daughter didn't see in herself. "My mother was active in supporting people, and I think that quality rubbed off on her children," Walker says. "I learned it's a good thing to reach out to help people."
The Red Cross, in particular, has benefitted from Walker's energy and commitment — and that door-to-door drive was just the first of many experiences she and the organization have shared.
In the early 1940s, with the country in the grips of World War II, the then-high-school student knitted facemasks for Navy sailors. "The boys needed to wear them on shipboard because it was so cold out there on the high seas," she says.
A decade later, in the early 1950s, Walker — by then a college graduate in nursing and public health — became the Red Cross's Eastern Area Nursing Representative for the entire state of Ohio. "It was a terrific time," she says. "I was the instructor-trainer for Home Care for the Sick, Disaster Training, and Mother and Baby Care. And I established a nursing committee in every chapter in the state."
During her time in that position, Walker was deployed to a number of significant disaster sites elsewhere in the country. When devastating floods slammed the state of Connecticut, she was sent to Winsted to organize the Red Cross support of families with ongoing medical needs. And, in the mid 1950s, she was also deployed to West Virginia after a series of mine explosions occurred there.
Later in the decade, while completing a master's degree in psychiatric social work at Smith College back in Massachusetts, Walker received an assignment that required her to do field work for a non-profit in Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, on weekends in her spare time, she chose to volunteer at the local American Red Cross chapter in Milwaukee.
By then, Isabel (MacLeod) had met and married her lifelong partner, John Walker; so when the Navy reassigned her husband to Taiwan, Walker packed up and went with him. But before long, she was back helping the Red Cross. "I worked for the blood program during our three years there," she says. "But the Chinese didn't have a tradition of giving blood, so we asked the U.S. sailors to give a pint before they went on leave."
It was in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, that Walker's most memorable Red Cross moment occurred. "I was asked by the blood program to deliver a lecture on health issues to the city's 'women of the night.' Unfortunately, the class was scheduled for 8:30 in the morning," she says, chuckling, "and the entire audience was asleep because they had just gotten off work."
By the mid-1960s, Walker and her husband were back in the States, having settled in Palo Alto after he was offered a position in finance at Stanford University.
Now with two young children, Walker continued to aid the organization that she had supported so impactfully for decades. "Someone approached me one day and asked if I could help arrange rides to the hospital for patients who lived in the area and needed regular chemotherapy or radiation treatments. I offered to help, and guess what? That person turned out to be from the Red Cross."
The development of that rides program was a boost for Walker, as it led to her being hired as a clinical social worker in the university's growing Oncology Department — a position she held for the next 30 years.
But her busy job and family responsibilities didn't completely close the book on Walker's Red Cross duties. During her many years at Stanford, she was involved in recruiting and training nurses who would volunteer to teach home nursing classes on weekends at the local Palo Alto Red Cross Chapter. Designed for families of people with cancer, the classes enabled the families to supplement the patients' home-care needs.
With Walker's active years as a Red Cross volunteer now many years behind her, she has found another way to support the organization that she credits with helping shape her: Walker is now a generous annual donor to the Red Cross. "That's how I help these days," she says.
"Since her very first donation of $25 in the 1950s, Isabel has continued to recognize the value of supporting the Red Cross," says Muhi Khwaja, major gift officer for the Silicon Valley Chapter. "Isabel's commitment to this great organization is not only illustrated by her decorated history of volunteer leadership, but by her very generous financial support, which has increased steadily over the years."
"Whether large or small, the donations that Isabel and others make to the American Red Cross are truly making our world a better place," Khwaja adds.
Walker, however, says the volunteer and financial support she has provided to the Red Cross is only half of the story. In truth, she quickly adds, her relationship with the organization has been mutually beneficial.
"When my mother sent that 10-year-old girl out on that door-to-door drive, I was introduced to the fact that if you work hard and do something important, it really means something in life," Walker says. "That was a life-changing experience for me."