By Kim Mailes
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 Jenny.
There she was in Missouri, working with caseworkers based in South Korea who were helping those displaced by California wildfires – the embodiment of the One Red Cross (ORC) mission.
ORC went quickly went from concept to reality during a year of unprecedented challenges and changes. Because of the pandemic, fewer Red Crossers were available for deployment while the number of natural disasters mushroomed, creating historic needs.
When more Shelter Resident Transition (SRT) caseworkers were needed to assist those in California, Red Cross planners began thinking about asking the Service to Armed Forces (SAF) personnel to help out.
Red Crossers staffers assigned to other tasks quickly pivoted to provide training and logistical support. SAF volunteers took on their new roles of caseworkers and soon found themselves working remotely with clients half a world away.
The ORC concept was developed a few years ago when leadership saw the need to provide faster and more efficient responses to disasters, while still maintaining traditional services.
In 2018, an ORC pilot program launched in three Red Cross regions: South Carolina, Nevada-Utah and Missouri-Arkansas.
Jenny recalls that when the concept was implemented in the Missouri-Arkansas region she noticed a new way of looking at things.
Previously, she stuck closely to her Disaster Program Specialist duties, overseeing disaster preparedness for 12 Southern Missouri counties. But ORC inspired her to accept new challenges, and when asked to virtually manage a team of 40 SRT caseworkers, she accepted the assignment.
This new team was established when the needs of some California shelter clients weren't being met. Their homes had been damaged, but not destroyed, by wildfires and they were stuck in a holding pattern. They needed just a little bit of funding and encouragement, a little guidance about how to proceed with their recovery.
Gehrig Haberstock, Disaster Program Manager in Wyoming, recalls the concern of having enough caseworkers to cover all the needs from the numerous disasters underway simultaneously. Someone suggested reaching out to SAF and the idea gained momentum.
Gehrig said Terra Jeffres, Disaster Cycle Services Director for Missouri-Arkansas, came to mind immediately for everyone. She had supported a lot of the casework teams in 2017 when there were four or five major disasters going on at once.
Terra quickly shifted gears and joined the new leadership team. She had worked previously with Jenny and recruited her to serve as supervisor for the operation.
“Jenny was willing and had an interest in Japan and South Korea," Gehrig 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 tried and adjusted as needed to assure service to those in mind.
“We built this program as we went along," she 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 SAF 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 wee bit of difference for someone in my old stomping grounds of northern California,” one SAF volunteer said.
Jenny described the satisfaction of supervising the team in an email to Gehrig: