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In Times of Need

Gail McGovern, American Red Cross

Photography by Mike McGregor

Clara Barton was a teacher and one of the first volunteers to rush to the aid of injured soldiers during the Civil War. When she got there, she found that some of the injured men were former students of hers. She was so moved and inspired by this and other experiences that she went on to found the American Red Cross. The organization has since become so intimately woven into the fabric of American life that it’s easy to forget it’s made up of real people doing real work every day—including Gail McGovern, the Red Cross’ president and CEO since 2008. We recently caught up with McGovern between disasters—literally.


CEO always sounds so big—how do you explain what you do to someone sitting next to you, say, on an airplane?
Well, first of all, I always say I have the best job in the entire world because I get to use my leadership skills helping others. Many people in the United States have been touched by the American Red Cross, yet it’s very unusual for me to meet anyone who truly knows the depth and breadth of everything we do. Everybody knows we respond to disasters. What they probably don’t know is that we respond to about 64,000 disasters every single year—and most of them are home fires. Fire doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor or where you are. It happens to people all over the place.

We did a survey and asked people: How long do you think you have to get out of your home if there were to be a fire? Seventy-five percent of them said five minutes or more, and the true answer is two minutes or less. People think they have all the time in the world to gather up their pets, to gather up their documents, to get their photographs. You don’t. That’s why we tell people, have a fire alarm, have a plan, have a kit and get out, just get out.

Trace Adkins, the country western singer, he loves the Red Cross because we went and helped his family when his home burned down. When that happens—every eight minutes in the United States—a selfless Red Cross volunteer gets paged and shows up to provide comfort and make sure the people have a place to stay. He or she will do a thousand things, give a kid a stuffed animal, lots of hugs, connect the family with services and stay with them until they’re back on their feet. They do this day in and day out. It’s a beautiful part of our mission.

Sixty-four thousand disasters—that’s a lot of trouble!
It is! We have chapters and people in every single county in the United States, and we have nearly half a million volunteers. Not just in every single U.S. county; we have volunteers available to all military members—including volunteers in Djibouti, Kuwait and soon Iraq. We will get [military service members] home in case there’s an emergency, and our volunteers do everything from act as morale officers to creating standing-up cybercafés.

That’s part of our mission that a lot of people don’t know about. But if you have served our country in the armed forces, we’re the ones who send you off with all the numbers that you need to call. We help military spouses, as well. We can do all of this because of the generosity of our volunteers and our donors, but the one place where we do get funding from the government is in the area of helping military families when there is an emergency—for instance, a death, medical emergency or birth. The military relies on us to do this because we have such a presence in [American] communities that we can be much faster and more efficient at getting details on the emergency, getting a death certificate, helping on the ground with funeral arrangements, notifying a young solider that he’s about to become a father for the first time and we have to get him home.

If you have volunteers on the ground in every county and also in places such as Kuwait, you’re covering a lot of ground.
We really are. And any of this is possible because of our donors—donors of time, donors of money, donors of blood, of course. I love going to our [blood] collection centers and I just ask people, why are you here? I hear the most remarkable stories. I will hear about an aunt whose 3-year-old niece is getting transfusions because she has leukemia. I will hear about a man whose son is awaiting a kidney [transplant] and is getting lifesaving blood. I met a man who donated 103 gallons of blood in his lifetime. Can you imagine? I said, “Sir, why do you do that?” He said, “I seriously think it’s the right thing to do.” It just floored me. It just floored me. These are people who are opening up their veins to save the life of a stranger. I mean, it doesn’t get more virtuous than that.

So those are blood donors. But then we have donors of time and money just everywhere you can think of. During that terrible earthquake in Haiti, the same day I got a phone call from the chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola, who told me that they were going to give us $1 million to help—and I opened a letter from a 7-year-old boy that said, “This is from the tooth fairy. Can you use it to help the people in Haiti?” When we make decisions, I think of those two people. I truly do. Would they be proud of what we are doing right now? Because we just have to be outstanding stewards of our donors’ hard-earned dollars. That kid made a big sacrifice, just like the CMO did. I take so seriously the responsibility of making sure that they would both be proud of us if they saw what we were doing.

What would Clara Barton be most surprised about if she could zip in from the 19th century and see you all today?
Probably the technology! We now have 13 different apps you can download, for many natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires. My favorite app is our First Aid app. It will dispatch 911 if you want it to, but it will also help with allergies, bee stings, broken bones, etc. It will teach you how to do hands-only CPR right there on the spot. The first week I was reading the reviews and one said, “I just saved my grandmother’s life from choking with my iPhone.” After the Oklahoma tornadoes a few years ago, a review said, “There were 12 people in my church and the siren went off on my phone. We all went down to the basement; we came up and the church was pretty much gone.” We just love technology. During Hurricane Sandy, we were getting a lot of information in real time from people contacting the Red Cross using Twitter: “I’m in Far Rockaway, we need food.” We have people volunteering at home in their jammies, mapping developing communities, finding the roads where there are no maps. When I got to Nepal after the earthquake, my Red Cross counterpart there had our maps all over the wall. He said, “These things have been invaluable.” We are constantly trying to embrace technology and harness it for good.

But when you’re talking about where we came from, our mission really hasn’t changed in more than 135 years. We have always been supportive of the military, we’ve always responded to disasters. The American Red Cross’ first disaster was the 1881 Michigan forest fire. I know I experience exactly what she did when you go to help. When I get to a disaster and I am comforting someone, I never say, “Hi, I’m the president and CEO of the American Red Cross.” I just throw on a Red Cross volunteer vest and walk around and sit down on a cot and put my arm around somebody. Seeing the devastation can really tear your heart out. Then the other side of it is, you look in the eyes of someone who has lost everything, they’re very weepy, they’re upset and then you feel weepy and upset and you reach to give them a hug and they tell you, “I’m going to be OK. I’m going to figure it out.” It’s a privilege to watch that process. It makes you feel very grateful, and you see the strength of the people. It’s inspiring.

That’s something I’m very grateful for: I get to see the resiliency of the American people up close. And I get to see the generosity of the American public. I see the best our country has to offer. I truly do. I know there aren’t a lot of people who get to see that—but it makes me feel kinder, it makes me humble when I see what people are dealing with and that’s what gives me strength to do and give more.

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