Story and Photos, MaryJane Mudd, Red Cross contributor
“When we do the best we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.” –Helen Keller
Ask nearly any Red Cross disaster team relief member who Donna Woods is, and you will immediately see that they know her. Donna – she of the soft eyes, kind smile, listening ear, and exceptional leadership skills – is a 21-year Red Cross volunteer and a mainstay of multiple disaster response operations across the southwestern United States.
As Staff Advocate for Tropical Storm Imelda response, Donna is responsible for the well-being of hundreds of Red Cross disaster workers who have traveled from around the country to bring food, shelter, comfort, and recovery assistance to those who may have lost everything. Sitting in the only quiet room adjacent to the noisy disaster operation, she reflects on “three special miracles,” or personal Red Cross experiences that reinforce her commitment to serve.
“I first reached out to the Red Cross when we moved from Canada to Oklahoma,” Donna said. “To be honest, I wasn’t adapting very well to my new home. The Red Cross gave me a purpose by allowing me the opportunity to comfort people after home fires as part of its volunteer Disaster Action Team (DAT).” Donna recognized the first miracle during a tragic moment.
“It was a terrible home fire,” she recalled. “The house was way out in the country, and there weren’t any neighbors or friends nearby. The mother, a baby, and a little boy perished in the blaze, leaving the father and two little girls to try and rebuild their lives.” She looked out the window of the Red Cross emergency response vehicle as she sat inside with the two little girls, viewing the father as he comprehended his loss. “I thought to myself, ‘Without the Red Cross, there would be no one here to comfort him.’ I knew then I wanted to remain with the Red Cross and continue helping.”
Donna was soon asked to deploy to North Carolina to assist with the Red Cross response to Hurricane Floyd, where she volunteered in a variety of tasks including liaising with local emergency managers to ensure community-wide coordination. Her second miracle happened then – the simple observation of an elderly Red Cross volunteer walking to her desk with a cane, every bit as valued as the others. “Here she was, probably 90 years old,” Donna remembered, “and she had purpose. This made me realize the length of dedication of a Red Cross volunteer. You don’t have to be the youngest, the sharpest, or the most communicative. The Red Cross is grateful for your time and will help you use your own special skills to make a difference.”
Donna’s many capabilities were evident, and she was eventually asked to lead Government Relations activities at other disaster responses, including five hurricanes in 2004. She continued to assist her local chapter, and still does, in a variety of capacities including facilitating Conflict Resolution courses for work teams. Donna has deployed to approximately 30 Red Cross disaster responses over the years, including Hurricanes Katrina, Ivan, Harvey, Florence and Matthew. “My friends never know where I am,” Donna laughed. “They text and ask me ‘Where are you now?’”
The third miracle came when the volunteer Staff Advocate position was created. “When hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Red Cross team members deploy to a disaster, it’s important that things go as well as possible,” Donna explained. “They spend long days putting their hearts and souls into helping people who’ve lost everything. There is stress in that, and yet they bring our mission to life.” Donna commends the Red Cross for valuing disaster workers and seeing to it that they are safe and have adequate food, rest, mental health services, and other offerings unique to the disaster relief experience.
When Donna reflects on her early days with the Red Cross, she remembers that father from the tragic house fire. “I bumped into him a year afterward, at a grocery store. He said he had a new house and that he and his two little girls were doing well. I was so grateful to hear this.”
With that, she kindly excused herself and returned to the hustle and bustle of the Imelda disaster response operation room. As she hugged and visited with weary but dedicated workers responsible for the well-being of Imelda survivors, something became clear: Like the thousands of volunteers who make up 90 percent of the American Red Cross work force, Donna herself is a miracle.
If you would like to join her, go to redcross.org/volunteer.
Well said! Donna is amazing at what she does with the volunteers and staff. On Imelda Donna even went into the Food Truck business for a few days. It is a great story to ask her about the next time you see her!