Tuesday, April 23, 2013

National Volunteer Week: Q&A with Director of Volunteer Services Susie Spartano

by Kristen Kerr, volunteer contributor

As the American Red Cross continues to respond to the tragedies in West, Texas and Boston, along with flooding in the Midwest, we wanted to take some time to recognize the hundreds of volunteers deployed to each of those disasters, as well as the thousands more who make it possible for us to respond to nearly 70,000 disasters every year. From tornadoes and hurricanes to single-family apartment fires, Red Cross volunteers are ready to respond 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

American Red Cross Director
of Volunteer Services,
North Texas Region
Susie Spartano
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking to the Director of Volunteer Services in the North Texas Region, Susie Spartano, to learn more about what she does at the Red Cross and what makes a great Red Cross volunteer.

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself and what it is that made you want to come to the Red Cross?
A: I always worked for for-profit so coming into a non-profit and reading the mission statement and absorbing the fact that the whole organization is here for the benefit of taking care of people was something that was foreign to me. I remember reading the mission statement and thinking ‘wow, this is so cool.’ 

Q: How long have you been with the Red Cross?
A: 13 years

Q: How has the job changed since you first started?
A: Actually having technology in regards to managing the volunteer services workforce is the biggest change. Everything used to be paper; manuals, Excel spreadsheets, training materials, etc. so trying to track and support a volunteer workforce of 6,000+ people and do it via Excel was difficult. Technology does allow us to respond in a way that people expect; we are better able, I think, to match the needs of the public, especially in a large metropolitan area. For example, we recently launched our new online volunteer system, Volunteer Connection.  

Q: What is it about the work that you do that has inspired you to stay?
A: As a human resource professional, I look into how to build an organization that supports the business, but also supports the individual. I feel strongly that a happy worker is one that is going to provide the organization with value, so being able to take that concept and apply it to a volunteer organization is really challenging and interesting. I just love being here and managing volunteers.

Q: What are some obstacles that you have faced while on the job?
A: The biggest one that sticks out is the re-organization of the Red Cross. It changed the way we work and the way that we look at our organization and we are still basically in the middle of that. Another big one that I want to give credit to is Hurricane Katrina. When Katrina hit, the Dallas Area Chapter had me and one other person working in the volunteer services area, and we were so overwhelmed. We were used to getting 25 paper applications per month, and we got about 800 in three weeks after Katrina. However, in a situation like that there is no place else you want to be because you can be a part of the solution. 

Q: What are some of your favorite moments with the Red Cross?
A: Realizing after Katrina that we served more than 24,000 people in a month and being a part of that team was life changing. I remember being in the shelter and it was an amazing experience because of course the shelter was like a small city; thousands of people were living there. I’ll never forget this one little girl who needed to go the bathroom so I took her and her little brother. As we’re walking to the restroom, I look down at her and I say “Okay angel, come on this way” and she goes (with a sassy attitude), “My names not angel!” She was so cute! Having the experience of Katrina in my life and being able to apply that so we do it better next time has been gratifying. 

Q: What does your day-to-day job entail?
A: A lot of oversight and building for the future. My main concern everyday is how we are serving our potential volunteers, that is our potential workforce as well as the department we serve. How are we responding to both of their needs, and then always looking at ways in how can we do things better; we can always take it to the next level.  

Q: What kind of challenges do you run into during your day-to-day?
A: Trying to address the cultural differences of our large geographic area is something we do quite a bit. You realize that every single community we serve is different; another big thing is how we make our workforce diverse.  

Q: Lastly, in your opinion what attributes do you think it takes to be a good volunteer?
A: To be a Red Cross volunteer, you have to be dedicated to serving the Red Cross clients and you have to have passion for taking care of people in need that have been affected by disaster or emergency. You have to want to help others because we ask a lot of our volunteers. They do everything across the organization. You have to be willing to go in and do what ever it takes. You should also be vocal because we become better when we all come together collectively. 

Volunteers work seven days a week, 365 days a year. If its 3 a.m. and there’s a flood or house fire, you can bet that our volunteers have received a phone call and are on their way. Therefore, next time you see someone in a Red Cross vest helping out their fellow man, just remember that they are more than likely a volunteer and are helping completely free of charge. 

If you are interested in being a part of the Red Cross volunteer force, please visit RedCross.org/DFW for additional information. Volunteer opportunities range anywhere from disaster preparedness to public affairs to mental health counseling. There is never a better time than now to help those in need. 

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