By Anusikha Halder
Eleanor Najjar's grandparents traveled all the way from Kentucky to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake so that they could be part of rebuilding an entire city. The couple's spirit lives on in Najjar, who says her connection to that part of her family history is a big part of what motivates her to volunteer for the American Red Cross.
"I know a disaster of that scale is going to happen again," she says. "And it's in my interest as a citizen of San Francisco and as a citizen of California to make sure that our communities are as ready as we can possibly be. We all have a role to play in a disaster, and my role right now is preparation for the next big one."
Najjar joined the Red Cross after the last great California quake — the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. She immediately decided to volunteer to help in the recovery, but felt she couldn't do so effectively without training like the Red Cross was able to provide her.
The experience stayed with her years later when Najjar was pulled into a different type of building effort: Together with Marian Wilson Sylvestre of the Bay Area Chapter, she built a partnership between the Red Cross and the Junior League of San Francisco. The partnership with the Junior League, an organization of women committed to voluntarism and leadership, not only helped train members in disaster preparation and relief, but also helped to create a cadre of disaster-ready volunteers.
Najjar's enthusiasm, diligence, and work habits didn't go unnoticed; not only did she become president of the Junior League at that time, but she ended up serving the first of three terms on the board of the American Red Cross Bay Area (ARCBA).
In those twin capacities, Najjar pushed to have volunteers more actively engaged with elected officials.
Najjar's efforts at legislative advocacy introduced her to Kate Daby, a statewide advocate for the Red Cross at the time. Daby's responsibilities included advocating for legislation involving disaster response and preparedness and ensuring that the legislation was implemented in a way that was in the best interests of the citizens of this state.
With Daby's help and the support of Chapter executives up and down the state, Najjar had sowed the seeds for a statewide effort to increase Red Cross volunteer involvement with legislative advocacy in the State of California.
She worked on that effort until about 1990, when her board term expired. But it took only three years for Najjar to rejoin the Bay Area chapter board at the urging of Wilson Sylvestre. Together, the pair shared the Government Relations work for ARCBA and, working with others, supported volunteer involvement and advocated for excellent legislation.
After taking a second break from board service, Najjar was encouraged to rejoin the chapter board by regional and chapter CEO Trevor Riggen. "It is just a great opportunity to work with other people like Trevor who also really love taking the work of the Red Cross to the community."
When asked about receiving the chapter's Clara Barton Award in May, Najjar expressed an abundance of modesty about receiving an honor reserved for the Red Cross's most devoted and impactful volunteers. "I was almost embarrassed," she says. "I think there are so many wonderful volunteers, and I had only been back for months when I was nominated for this award. There are so many people who do so much, and to be selected from that group – I was speechless."
In reflecting on a lifetime of service that her grandparents would be proud of, Najjar pauses before offering these words: "My life is punctuated by volunteerism. They are the commas, colons, semi-colons; they are the capital letters."
Caption: Eleanor Najjar received the Clara Barton Award in May at the American Red Cross of the Bay Area's annual Volunteer Awards and Recognition Event. She is pictured with Trevor Riggen, Chief Executive Officer, Northern California Coastal Region (right); and J.J. Lara, chair of the board's San Francisco Leadership Council.
About the author: Anusikha Halder wrote this article while interning during the summer of 2016 for the American Red Cross of the Silicon Valley.