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Volunteer Spotlight: Pat Bull

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There’s a world of opportunity out there. Find something you’re passionate about and do it.

Dollies to Disasters - Joining the Red Cross

American Red Cross volunteer nurse Pat Bull has been around the world and back. From being a Navy nurse stationed in the Philippines, to a Red Cross nurse in Louisiana post-hurricane Katrina, and back to disaster responses in our own sunny San Diego. But you’d never know any of it just meeting her. Sitting across from Pat Bull, she’s just one more kind, smiling San Diegan, reflecting back to the world the warmth and beauty that exemplify America’s Finest City.

Pat was originally introduced to the Red Cross by her mother and was reacquainted years later when her older sister volunteered to go to Vietnam as a Donut Dolly for the soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. These “Dollies” would staff recreation centers fairly close to the front lines, where they’d have donuts and Kool-Aid for the troops. Her sister’s time with the Red Cross and subsequent enlistment in the Navy contributed to Pat’s own decisions to join both as well. From early in her life, Pat was making decisions that would teach her the skills and opportunities she would later use to help and serve others.

A World of Experience

Pat’s volunteer experiences have carried her near and far. Despite the unexpected places she regularly finds herself in, she makes it clear that most of the work is in the planning and preparation. It’s the behind-the-scenes work that allows her and the rest of her Health Services team to deploy to all sorts of disasters, whenever and wherever needed.

When called upon, Pat shifts naturally to the client-centered focus of the Red Cross mission: “People coming to a shelter, it’s is not their first choice,” says Pat, “…but it's a safe place.” She tends to focus on others and finds something positive in just about every situation. Her positivity seems to be the source of her attraction to the Red Cross.   

Pat’s most memorable experience was during Red Cross relief work for the people of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Pat left San Diego destined for Baton Rouge, but not for long. When she got there, the mayor of Houston announced that people sheltering in the Super Dome in New Orleans could relocate to the Astrodome in Houston.

Pat’s experience at the Astrodome was made memorable by the magnitude of the event. “Here's the Astrodome at 6 o'clock at night and they realized there were just about 200 spots and we're expecting ten or 15 thousand. There was a lot of spontaneous and ‘just-in-time’ training,” says Pat.  

During the time after the hurricane in New Orleans, there were myriad stories about the rapid influx of people to the Astrodome.  “So, when we left at 6 o'clock in the morning, there were 100 or so that had actually come in,” says Pat. “And then arriving back at 6 o'clock at night, the whole floor of the Astrodome was absolutely packed! Some of the people ended up sleeping in chairs or lying down in front of the seats because there weren't enough cots down there. It was incredible. I also learned there that most people can take care of themselves. We're there to see to their safety but when you only have six or eight people [volunteer nurses] on at night and people were everywhere…we each took an area as the nights went on. You start to get to know the people in your area and you got to know their stories. You realize some people had come, some people had gone. After two or three days if they didn't come back they had either gone home or someplace else and they never returned.”

For Pat Bull, the excitement of the Red Cross also finds her close to home. In 2007, San Diego County had a difficult bout with wildfires. Pat was coming back from a Sunday afternoon basketball game in Mission Valley when she saw smoke billowing on the horizon. She got home, flipped on the TV and saw the news of wildfires throughout the county. She sent an email to some Red Cross colleagues saying, “Turn your TV on. San Diego County is burning. I’m sure we’ll need shelters.” Before she could change from her gym clothes, she got a call asking her to come into the CDOC (Chapter Disaster Operations Center) at the San Diego Red Cross Headquarters. “So I showered and I came in and we started opening shelters. We opened probably five of ‘em that first night,” says Pat. Just like that, a disaster burst into Pat’s life, and with her Red Cross training she helped provide shelter and safety to her community during a time of devastation.  

During the 2010 Easter earthquake, Pat worked with the residents of a mobile home park community who had their homes “red-tagged” by the authorities, meaning that the residents weren’t allowed back into their homes because the earthquake caused too much damage to gas and water lines. A Red Cross shelter was set up in the recreation center of the mobile home park so it would be more convenient for displaced residents. Pat and other volunteer nurses were there to provide vital health support and services for those who were unable to return to their homes.

Pat’s experience with the Red Cross is what many desire when they go to work in public service or with a non-profit. It’s clear she feels a drive to help others however she can.  

Volunteering: “Just do it”

What drives Pat to serve and, what’s more, to be self-effacing in her service? Maybe it goes back to her upbringing in a small intimate community in rural Pennsylvania. “We lived in the country,” Pat says. “Did a lot of stuff outdoors, played in the neighborhood. It was safe. The neighbor would pay us 10 cents an hour to work on the stand, to pick the strawberries, to pick the beans. The houses weren’t right on top of each other. It was country living, it was a rural community. And it was good.”

Although Bull hasn’t lived in rural Pennsylvania for years, the value of shared responsibility for the community has remained. “I think everybody should volunteer somewhere,” she says. “We need to give back to our communities. The Red Cross may not be right for everybody, but the Red Cross has a lot to offer the community. And the more people you have, the more you can offer.”

When asked what people can do to foster the kind of world that that the Red Cross works toward, she answered easily. “We just need to be nice to each other.” She recalled a type of customer service program from the Navy called TEAM Training, standing for Treat Everyone As Me. Pat describes it as “That kind of ‘do unto others as you want them to do unto you.’ Treat people the way you want to be treated. Be nice. It’s not all about me.”  Pat explains, “The thing that I like about the [Red Cross] management is the focus on the clients, the priorities are in the right place.”

Maybe Pat and the Red Cross are not bonded by altruism alone.  Maybe what makes their partnership so widely impactful is their ingrained understanding that we’re all in this together. The Red Cross can’t provide aid and relief without the help of selfless volunteers like Pat. Similarly, volunteers like Pat can’t give time and resources without being part of an organization that they believe in, like the Red Cross.

Where do the rest of us fit into Pat’s view of service? “Just do it,” she says. If it’s something that interests you, just do it. There’s a world of opportunity out there. Find something you’re passionate about and do it.”  

For more information on how you can become a Red Cross volunteer, please visit redcross.org/volunteer.