By David Strom
Debi Meeds remembers the first time she heard about the American Red Cross, and it goes back to when we used to call middle school “junior high.” It was the 1960s. She was in a school assembly learning of the organization’s origins which stem from Henry Dunant’s foundational efforts. The presentation made such an impact that she soon became a volunteer, a candy striper, at her local hospital, which later convinced her to go into a nursing career. That school assembly became her mantra to make a difference and help someone in need.
“My parents built into us the desire to serve others from those earliest days,” she said.
That isn’t surprising, given that her parents were missionaries.
“At nursing school two of our instructors were Red Cross nurses,” she said. After getting her nursing degree, Meeds went on to have a 25-year professional career at the Red Cross, rising through various management positions to eventually running a regional chapter in southwestern Missouri. But what makes her resume hard to parse is that she supplemented her paid positions by volunteering for various jobs during her tenure. The volunteer work persisted after her retirement from running a chapter in 2014.
“I have no idea how many certification classes I have,” she said. “But it really doesn’t matter, in the end you have to keep them current if you want to be deployed at a disaster.”
She currently holds dual positions, as Volunteer Services Engagement Lead and as a Volunteer Partner in Disaster External Relations and Partnerships and is based in Springfield, MO.
When Debbie went from CEO to volunteer in 2014, it was a transformative time for her.
“I was so welcomed as a volunteer, and it has enabled me to make a difference in training other volunteers for the organization,” she said. “The biggest difference between being a volunteer and paid staff is that the pressure that you have as a volunteer is all self-generated. One of the biggest things about the Red Cross is that you don’t really know who a volunteer is and who is getting paid.”
The role of training supervisor was a natural fit for Meeds.
“Everyone that you train is one more person that can save a life. But you multiply that effect by being a trainer. I have taught a lot of human resources and supervisor classes, and apart from this multiplier effect another benefit is because we are training and inspiring our future generations, the people that are going to love the Red Cross and continue to carry out our mission.”
Meeds has given thousands of presentations in schools and boys/girls clubs and scouting organizations over the years. She says this drive to educate children was “because I was inspired at that early age, and it is an opportune time where we can influence the next generation of our volunteers and leaders.”
Speaking of that next generation, she is particularly proud of two people that she trained that have since gone on to take positions at the national Red Cross office: one in volunteer services and one in public relations. One of those people was a college student who came into the office because he had to do mandatory community service time to work off a traffic summons.
“A lot of chapters don’t want volunteers coming from these situations, but I did. It is a common misconception that the volunteer is just there to work off their hours and then go on their merry way. But he became hooked and understood how he made a difference and made the Red Cross his career.”
This training work helped Meeds in her role during the Joplin tornado of 2011 where several schools and one hospital were leveled. She was one of the first to respond to that disaster and set up a shelter that eventually cared for 3,000 people and served more than 77,000 meals to those displaced during that event.
“Everything that I did since I was in seventh grade prepared me for that moment. I was able to use my nursing skills to care for the injured and was able to train other volunteers to set up the shelter,” Meeds said.
Another transformative event for Meeds was when her missionary parents were sent to Korea when she was a pre-teen. She parlayed her hospital experience in Missouri to get a similar position at the Southern Baptist Hospital in Seoul Korea, where she worked with children with polio and other disabilities. During that experience, she observed surgeries and helped with other minor medical tasks. She eventually returned to Korea as a volunteer to support an Army pediatric clinic in the 1990s and was honored for exceptional service, the first of many such awards and other honors over her career, which included deployments to Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and to tornadoes in Georgia and Moore, OK.
"I have met the most amazing people during my time at the Red Cross,” she said. “And I’ve learned by working various events that we can help our communities beyond the event to make a daily difference to so many people.”