It’s still a couple of hours before dawn when Jenny Solomon’s alarm beeps. She dresses quietly and pads down the hallway past her sleeping daughter’s bedroom to her Red Cross computer.
Like so many other Americans, she's working from home these days, at a cozy desk facing the kitchen window where she observes life in her small, rural Missouri hometown. Taking her first sip of coffee, she waits while her computer screen awakens, and several cheerful faces appear onscreen.
“Good morning, team,” she says with a smile. “Good evening,” the group responds from South Korea where it’s 15 hours ahead of Solomon. There she was in Missouri, working with caseworkers based in South Korea who were helping those displaced by California wildfires.
Due to the pandemic, fewer Red Cross volunteers have been available for deployment while the number of natural disasters mushroomed, creating historic needs.
Recently, as deadly fires raged across California, the need for help continued to grow. There was a specific need for more shelter caseworkers to assist, specifically in California. That is when the Red Cross reached out to their volunteers overseas in Asia. These volunteers, many of whom were military spouses, took on new roles as caseworkers and soon found themselves working remotely with clients half a world away.
Solomon recalls that when the concept was suggested to work with overseas virtual volunteers it opened her up to a new way of looking at things. Previously, she stuck closely to her regional duties, managing 12 southern Missouri counties. But this opportunity inspired her to accept new challenges. She was recruited to serve as supervisor for this operation.
“Jenny was willing and had an interest in Japan and South Korea," Disaster Manager Gehrig Haberstock recalls. "Plus, it didn’t hurt that her 14-year-old daughter thought the whole idea was really, really cool!”
For Jenny, it was another challenge to be met. Procedures and protocols were put in place as needed to assure service to those in mind.
“We built this program as we went along," Solomon said. “It's amazing. We sit in front of computer screens and talk to each other in different time zones, doing the work that needs to be done. I’m sitting in the middle of the United States in Missouri and they’re in Japan and South Korea, and we’re working with families in California.”
Most volunteers in Asia serving on the team are spouses of military personnel, and they found working with clients back home extremely gratifying.
“It was very emotionally tough for me, but it was such an honor to make a difference for someone in my old stomping grounds of northern California,” one military spouse volunteer said.
Solomon described the satisfaction of supervising the team in an email to Gehrig:
“Working as a humanitarian, some days are just difficult. My team had that kind of day yesterday. As the shift began, we quickly noticed similar issues among the folks we were calling: They had lost their shelter and had nowhere to go. The Asia Pacific SAF team did its job in a huge way, identifying the problem and reporting it to the team onsite in California. But we left our shift not really knowing what the outcome would be, worried how the people we had talked to would make it through the night.
“But when we started our shift today (which is really tomorrow in Asia), we discovered that those without shelter the day before now had shelter because the SRT teams in Japan and South Korea had identified the problem. “So this is what I told my team today: We’re making a big difference, even though it sometimes might not feel that way. But trust me, some lady and her kids are not sleeping in their car tonight. You made a huge difference!”
Virtual deployments are expanding opportunities to serve through temporary roles to get the job done. The cost savings in reduced travel and lodging expenses are significant, and flexible deployment keeps Red Cross staffers nimble and prepared for the unexpected. Plus, virtual deployments allow volunteers to serve safely. Another amazing benefit is the camaraderie it brings to volunteers of the organization.
As Solomon put it in an email to a member of her team in Asia at the end of their mission, "The Red Cross world isn't that big, and I'm sure we'll be crossing paths again. I am proud to be part of this organization and the people that make us the American Red Cross."