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Retired executive uses corporate skills to bolster humanitarian mission

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The challenges, the people, the opportunities are what keep me going at the Red Cross

Paul Kastner joined the American Red Cross of Massachusetts six years ago and has never looked back. Serving as a volunteer and a regional board member in the organization, Paul is known among his colleagues as an extremely humble, good natured, hard working person who strives to help and contribute in whatever way possible.

His passion and dedication toward his job earned him the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence earlier this year.

For the last 20 years of his 35-year retail career, Kastner worked at Talbots in Hingham, MA, retiring in 2008 as Senior Vice President, International and Strategic Planning, responsible for corporate strategic planning and market research as well as the Talbot operations in Canada, the UK and the company’s association with Talbots stores in Japan.  Seated in his cube in Cambridge, the headquarters of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, he spoke about his journey so far in this organization.

American Red Cross – Tell us about your work before you joined the Red Cross?

Paul Kastner – I graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering and spent my entire career of 35 years in the retail industry. I have worked in various cities across the country before finally ending up here in Massachusetts. I retired from Talbots in 2008 as a senior vice president.

ARC – What led you to join an organization like the Red Cross after spending more than three decades in the corporate sector?

Kastner – When I retired, I wanted to do something. I wanted to be actively involved as opposed to just getting my name on the list. I tried other organizations, went to some events and meetings but was never actively involved. One time there was some flooding in northern New England and I saw that the Red Cross was there. At that point in time, I thought maybe there was something in the Red Cross for me. When I started six years ago, I started by going to a Red Cross Open House. At that meeting I asked some questions about how I could be more involved with the Red Cross. I told them that I don’t want be on some list, I actually want to do something. They showed interest in me and now here I am.

ARC – Did you always want serve the community at some point in your life before you joined the Red Cross?

Kastner – I knew I wanted to do something. When you are working, a lot of times you get on board and you try to do things. When you miss a meeting or you miss an event, you feel guilty because they are the ones paying you. You are always doing something out of your work obligation. When you are retired, you don’t have that, so you can really devote yourself to the thing you really want to do. It was really the need to stay active and be useful in an organization. I wanted to be able to contribute and feel useful. Fortunately, the Red Cross happened and everything just panned out from there.

ARC – What was the first role that you were assigned when you joined the Red Cross? How has your role here expanded over the years? Can you shed some light on how you have adapted the GIS Mapping Software in Red Cross?

Kastner – My first job was to convert the existing Excel spreadsheets of all the incidents that had taken place into a report format. We have now eliminated the Excel spreadsheets and now have Access databases. We have created electronic forms. Earlier it was all on paper and someone had to key in all the data. It is part of what I have developed. It has evolved from being the lengthy, tedious Excel spreadsheets to a very robust database.

My role is now multi-faceted because I work in disaster and blood services. I am also on the board of directors and primarily deal with database creation and management. Part of the database management requires me to create a report out of the data contained in the databases.

The GIS Mapping Software is a part of database management and part of reporting, marking where incidents have taken place and mapping where our volunteers are located. We had mostly done it by town and have now most recently adapted to zip code categorization. This software is now being used by all lines of services and has been nationally adapted by the American Red Cross.

ARC – After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, a new program came into being under your leadership. Could you elaborate on the program?

Kastner – With the help of my fellow team members Stephanie Walsh and Bob Bowers, I took over the management of the Boston Marathon medical stations. There are 26 such medical stations. My role was credentialing and staffing the medical stations, to get the tents set up, to get all the volunteer credentials, to get them all the equipment they need. The tents themselves have become more evolved in terms of the services they provide and are now better equipped. Earlier the volunteers were only required to have CPR training but after the bombing they needed to have EMT and above certifications to work in a tent. The equipment they get now is much more advanced and robust. The Boston Athletic Association now uses the same functionality in their medical tents.

ARC – Being a volunteer yourself, what do you think are the roles and responsibilities of a volunteer?

Kastner – I think the role of a volunteer can be anything that the volunteer wants it to be, and that’s what makes this organization so great. You have so many opportunities at so many different levels. You can work as much as you want or as little as you want. A volunteer has to come in and find out what’s available. A volunteer should learn more about the organization and express an interest. The Red Cross will help you find a project where you feel comfortable. I always say that if you are working for the Red Cross and you don’t like what you’re doing, don’t leave because there’s always something else that you can do, which is what I have done. I do what interests me.

ARC – How has your journey been in the Red Cross?

Kastner – The good thing about the Red Cross is that you can do as much as you want. You can become as active as you want. For me, the Red Cross is not a career path. I look at it as something that challenges me. When I retired I lost those 1,500 people I used to work with. The Red Cross gave me that opportunity to meet people again and to interact with them. The challenges I face, the people I meet, and the opportunities that I get here are what keep me going in this organization.

ARC– How do you feel about receiving the Presidential Award for Excellence?

Kastner – When I first heard about it, I was like “Okay, yeah, I am getting an award, that’s really nice.” I didn’t think much about it until I was in the room with all those people in Washington D.C. along with my wife. That’s when I realized that out of 206,000 people, I was among a handful of individuals to get that award. I feel grateful to the people in the American Red Cross of Massachusetts who had enough confidence in me to nominate me for the award. I think it says a lot about the Red Cross in Massachusetts. They recognize that you have some abilities. I love that about them. Part of the reason that I got this award is because of what we do as an organization. I love what I do and I love seeing the success of my projects and my team members but I don’t want the credit for it. That’s how I am. I like the satisfaction of doing a good job. It’s nice being appreciated but I am happier to prepare others or set the stage for someone else. I don’t want the spotlight on me. I feel more comfortable being behind the scenes and helping others taking a lead.

Paul Kastner is a living example of the fact that it’s never too late to contribute and make a difference if one is dedicated and passionate.