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Helping clients is all the motivation this volunteer needs

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Our goal is always the same — to take care of our clients. Period.

For retired nurse Colleen Sasso, becoming a volunteer for the American Red Cross in 2009 was a perfect opportunity to do something other than nursing. It was a good plan, or so it seemed at the time.

"I had had a long and wonderful career at the San Francisco VA Medical Center," Colleen says. "I worked in intensive care and was in charge of nursing in the Radiology Department. And I loved working with veterans."

"But I really imagined doing something entirely different than nursing just because I could," she says, laughing at the recollection. So Colleen signed up to do casework in the Red Cross' San Mateo County office in Burlingame.

Then, only a year into Colleen's new role as a Red Cross volunteer, a catastrophic natural gas line explosion occurred in the suburban city of San Bruno, two miles west of San Francisco International Airport. Eight people died and dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed as a result of the explosion.

"It was my first DR," Colleen says of the disaster response. "I did casework for that disaster, but I guess people in the Red Cross saw how much experience I had in nursing because I was heavily recruited by Health Services managers after that deployment."

What those Red Cross managers saw back in 2010 was what her colleagues have seen day-in and day-out since: Colleen believes that very well-intentioned people, departments, and agencies can sometimes over-compartmentalize the tasks, roles, and responsibilities that are required just to make someone feel better. In fact, her more than 40 years as a nurse has made Colleen a big believer in "whole-person care," an approach that considers a patient's physical health, behavioral health, and social needs in concert rather than in isolation.

"I think that's one reason why the Red Cross has been a good fit for me," she says. "Whether you are talking about a volunteer or a paid staff member, their goal is always the same — to take care of our clients. Period."

Colleen says her experience in another major Red Cross DR — when Asiana Airlines Flight 214, carrying 307 people from South Korea to San Francisco, crashed during its final approach to SFO in July 2013 — reinforced the value of inter-agency collaboration.

"During Asiana, we had to reach out to the hospitals just to find out where clients had been taken as patients," Colleen says. "At the time, there was a significant amount of resistance to that outreach because the hospitals are bound by HIPAA [medical privacy] rules."

While Colleen and her colleagues have subsequently let the hospitals know that the Red Cross is exempt from HIPAA, she says the relationship-building goes beyond letting them know that. "We want them to know who we are personally and that our goal is to work together," she says. "Our hospital partners and the Red Cross both want our clients to get to as positive an outcome as possible, especially given the fact that the people we are caring for have just experienced a pretty negative disaster."

Combining experience and perspective, Colleen has been a "Jill of all trades" for the Red Cross' operation in San Mateo County. She is the Red Cross' Direct Services Administrator for the county, a position that has combined some aspects of her health services coordinator and client casework coordinator roles. Her administrator role also requires a strong working relationship with disaster mental health.

Colleen's work in all of these areas landed her one other title in 2017: Clara Barton Award recipient. The award, given to her at San Mateo County's annual Volunteer Recognition Event, is the highest the American Red Cross bestows upon volunteers. It recognizes meritorious service in volunteer leadership positions held over a period of years.

It was an unexpected honor she was thrilled to receive, Colleen says. And, while discussing it, she pauses to reflect on the reason she volunteered for the Red Cross in the first place.

"As would be the case with any large organization that needs to do so much during disasters, the Red Cross sometimes is on the receiving end of a negative story about something we could have done better," she says. "So when I joined, I felt sort of compelled to find out for myself whether any of those articles were as they were reported."

After more than nine years with the Red Cross, Colleen can happily share her own first-hand impressions of an organization she joined partly out of curiosity: "We're not always perfect," she says. "But I have learned that this is an organization that helps so many people so heroically during such times of real difficulty. I couldn't be more proud to be doing this work."

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•  For more information about volunteering for the American Red Cross, please go to: redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer