by David Warren, volunteer contributor
Semien Hagos was introduced to the American Red Cross much the way many others are – in the wake of a disastrous event that leaves one staggering to recover.
Hagos was 7 when flames swept through the Section 8 housing complex where she lived in Dallas. While the apartment she shared with her parents and sister was relatively unscathed, the apartments around her were left uninhabitable. Her neighbors were forced from their homes.
As firefighters stamped out hotspots, Red Cross volunteers arrived with food, blankets and toys for the children. “That was something that was always ingrained in my head,” said Hagos, who’s now 18.
The memory remained with her as she entered Lake Highlands High School looking to expand on the community service work she had done elsewhere. So she reached out to the Red Cross North Texas Region for some guidance and soon after launched a Red Cross Club at her school. Before long, more than 140 other students had joined her to organize a blood drive and various fundraisers on behalf of the Red Cross.
“We’re always thinking of doing small things that could go viral at our school,” she said, be it a drink stand or “valentines for heroes” campaign that reaches out to military personnel abroad.
It seems Hagos -- armed with fine grades, a long list of extracurricular work and enough after-school jobs to fill a resume – is always on the run. Appropriately enough, she’s a captain of her high school cross-country and track teams.
The Red Cross’ Sonya Goodwin has worked with Hagos and says the teen has “distinguished herself as a dedicated, creative and driven leader.” The Red Cross Club at Lake Highlands, Goodwin said, “allows youth to demonstrate leadership skills while serving their community.”
Hagos talks confidently of her future. She’s gathered scholarships and grants that will pay for her schooling at the University of Arkansas. She may want to study industrial psychology but she sees herself more likely launching a career in business.
She speaks excitedly of becoming a Razorback and what her life holds for her. It’s easy to forget the hardship that could have drowned her ambition and hopes.
Her parents struggled to scrape together money to support their two daughters after immigrating from Ethiopia. The burden grew heavier when her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, growing progressively weaker and ultimately succumbing to the disease when Hagos was 13. Her mother was beset by illnesses before ovarian cancer was discovered. She died in January.
The bond with her sister, 22-year-old Rama, tightened during those years. “She raised me because she’s older, but we really raised each other,” Hagos said.
She remembers her parents for their sacrifice. “My parents fought for the life we have today,” she said, explaining that they often stressed the importance of education.
“They left their family and everything they knew (in Ethiopia) just so we could have a better life,” she said.
She expresses her appreciation for the support of friends, neighbors and others in the Lake Highlands section of Dallas. Over the years people there extended a hand to steady her, kind of in the way the Red Cross reaches into communities to provide its own comfort.
When Hagos says the Red Cross Club at her school has “brought people together,” she could just as well be talking more broadly about the Red Cross organization. The Red Cross first introduced itself to Hagos when she was a young girl, and she’s not inclined to let the relationship soon end.
“It’s not something I’m willing to let go of,” she said.
Join Semien and more than 7,000 other humanitarians as part of the American Red Cross volunteer corps here in North Texas this National Volunteer Week. Start your Red Cross story at RedCross.org/Volunteer. To learn more about starting a Red Cross Club at your school, visit RedCross.org.