By Kati Cowan, American Red Cross volunteer
It all started in November 2018, before the Lilac Fire. Disaster Cycle Services volunteer Debbie McQuillan knew something had to be done. She was concerned that opening a shelter may take too long if volunteers with the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties didn’t know exactly where to go to get started during disasters.
“Don’t tell me what you can’t do. Tell me what you can do and how hard you are willing to work.” This was her dad’s favorite line – and words that Debbie lives by. “It has stayed with me and has always been my thing,” she said. And with that, she got to work.
As she dove into her research about the inner workings of mobilizing volunteers for shelter operations, Debbie quickly found areas to optimize. She used her organizational skills and experience in biochemistry and her MBA in computer information systems to re-organize and streamline the entire operation. She meticulously updated all the information needed to expedite the workflow and allow for quick access to all pertinent data required to open a shelter. She came up with easy nomenclature and rid the system of any ambiguity.
Debbie, now retired, confided that she used to sit at home doing nothing; yet, she remembers that she was raised with the idea that your value in the world is based on what you give to others.
Her chance to do just that came about when a neighbor invited her to help out with a local Red Cross Sound the Alarm smoke alarm installation program in her community. As she became further involved with the organization, she considered volunteering as a shelter worker; however, with age and health considerations, she wasn’t interested in continuing in an environment that would likely bring exposure to smoke, as shelters often have to be set up near wildfires. She tried volunteering with the feeding team, but lifting heavy containers compromised her back injuries. But then something happened. During her time with the feeding team, not being able to do much of the heavy lifting, she was called upon to take care of some paperwork that needed attention. It soon became obvious that she had outstanding computer and organizational skills and plenty of initiative. The rest is history. She had found her place.
Debbie now manages the emergency shelter database for the local Red Cross. Because of her excellent work, the level of preparedness and regional readiness has significantly increased. Debbie’s work stands out even at the national level -- the National Sheltering Advisor was impressed with the thorough job that Debbie did to update the shelter contacts in San Diego and Imperial Counties.
Thanks to Debbie, when a future disaster affects the San Diego region, from Pala to Winterhaven to San Ysidro to Carlsbad, there are hundreds of pre-identified shelters in safe locations that are ready and willing to open their doors to evacuees.
Debbie has built relationships with hundreds of shelter contacts and updated over 90 percent of the sheltering emergency contacts of the local Red Cross. She posts, updates and maintains all Facility Use Agreements, surveys and facility photos in the National Shelter System and in local record-keeping. She divides her time between outreach, follow up and data entry to ensure a job well done.
“I have limitations because of my health issues but that does not mean you cannot volunteer. You just have to find your niche where your strengths meet their needs,” Debbie advises fellow and prospective volunteers. “If you first come in and they put you to work and it does not feel right, ask for a different challenge. Sometimes the first job is not the right one for you. Some give up and do not realize the many things you can do for the Red Cross.”
Through volunteering, Debbie discovered she has a purpose and makes a difference in this world. “I feel guilty,” she says. “I get so much out of it.”
For more information on volunteering with the American Red Cross, visit redcross.org/volunteer.