By Laura Warfel
Gail Howatt of Conway, Arkansas, still remembers her second deployment as a volunteer with the American Red Cross. She was the only health services volunteer in a shelter for survivors of a disaster.
“As we were closing the shelter down, shelter clients came and thanked me,” she said. “Some even hugged me. I saw that we are really making a difference in people’s lives.”
In 2004, Gail and her husband, Jim had just moved to a new community. They saw an ad for a Red Cross volunteer recruitment meeting at a local pizza place, and they went. That was the beginning of their work with the Red Cross. Jim serves as a Disaster Action Team volunteer.
A registered nurse and experienced CPR instructor, Gail began volunteering by teaching CPR classes for the Red Cross. As she learned more about disaster response, she made the switch. She and Jim deployed together several times before she moved into her current supervisory role.
Today, Gail is the Disaster Health Services (DHS) Program Lead for the Missouri and Arkansas Region. She leads a team of 50 volunteers in handling fire responses and healthcare response for disaster relief operations, as well as onboarding new DHS members, keeping communication open and leading monthly team meetings.
The variety of quality training provided by the Red Cross is one of the most valuable assets for Gail and other volunteers. Recently, she and her team began learning the RC Care online system, which will help them work more efficiently in the future.
“I especially appreciate being able to stay connected with the nursing profession during my retirement years,” Gail said. “Working with a variety of age groups among our healthcare volunteers is so rewarding. The staff and volunteers on our health services team are colleagues and friends.”
Gail appreciates that human connection with other volunteers and with people in need of help. “I feel useful and thankful that I am still able to contribute,” she said. “I’ve volunteered throughout my life, but the Red Cross gives me opportunities to offer a glimmer of hope.”
There is always a need for healthcare volunteers. The current mandate is for at least one healthcare professional to be on site 24/7 at each shelter that the Red Cross hosts. Among other outreach and recruiting efforts, Gail continues to educate nursing students about what the Red Cross does — and plants the idea of volunteering at any time during their career.
“We want to help our Red Cross volunteers succeed,” she said. “My team members know they can call me anytime. We’ll work through any challenges together.”
While there are many areas outside of disaster programs in which to volunteer, for those considering disaster services, Gail said, “Disasters aren’t planned, and we have to be ready to jump from one plan to another plan. Every individual is impacted differently. We have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”