By Noreen Walton, American Red Cross volunteer
If anyone can prove the adage that “age is just a number,” it is June 2022 Riverside County Volunteer of the Month Janet Upchurch. Among the many to-dos on her summer calendar is attendance at her 70th reunion from Santa Ana High School. Janet, who will celebrate her 87th birthday in the coming year, credits her volunteer work with Red Cross for keeping her active, engaged, and positive. “After I retired from a career in the food industry, I needed something worthwhile to do,” Janet explains. “I had a friend who volunteered with Red Cross, so I decided to join her.” 17 years later, Janet is still going strong.
Janet deployed to New Orleans as a Red Cross volunteer in August 2005, in response to Hurricane Katrina. “I left for New Orleans after just one sheltering class. It was definitely a learn-as-you-go experience for me. When we arrived, people were wading through water in the streets. They needed sheltering. They needed food. They needed support.” Since then, Janet has participated in over 30 deployments including responses in Hawaii and Alaska, acquiring the skills and knowledge that have led to her current role as a Shelter Supervisor. She welcomes the challenges that come with sheltering large groups of people. “You have to know where to assign your volunteers. Where their talents are best used. You have to keep up the morale of your volunteers and the morale of your clients.” This work can result in 12-hour shifts for Janet and her sheltering team, but she believes the rewards outweigh the work. “I am a people person. I like getting paid in hugs.”
One memorable hug came from a woman in Hawaii whose house had been destroyed by lava flowing from the Kilauea volcano. “She brought her chihuahua, named Sweet Tea, to the Red Cross shelter,” says Janet. “I told her I had a dog whose name was Sweet Pea. When that lady’s home was finally rebuilt, she wrote to me and invited me to visit anytime!”
Janet brings this same kind of energy and enthusiasm to all her Red Cross work, including training new volunteers in the Mass Care team and installing free smoke alarms for community members as part of the Riverside County Chapter’s Hot Shots team. Described by her Red Cross colleagues as flexible, positive and “willing to roll with the punches,” Janet believes deeply in the ability of the Red Cross to change the lives of its volunteers. “We get so much more than we give,” says Janet. “Red Cross has been my salvation. It has made my life worthwhile.”
To learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer, please visit redcross.org/volunteer.