Volunteers make all the difference in the American Red Cross Ohio Buckeye Region


Mary Lynn Foster joined the American Red Cross in December 2016 to become the regional CEO of the Ohio Buckeye Region, but she had no idea everything the organization did.

“I now know why the Red Cross is the premiere humanitarian organization,” she says.

The Red Cross seeks to be the best part of someone’s worst day, Foster says.

This mission certainly struck home when she spent two weeks deployed to Corpus Christi, after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Foster saw firsthand how the Red Cross opens shelters, provides meals, gives spiritual support and more.

“There’s one image I recall, where I was driving by, the sunshine was coming in, and the houses were destroyed, except for one little closet, and I could see through it and all the clothes were perfectly hanging still on hangars,” she says.

Aside from large-scale disasters, the Ohio Buckeye Region — responsible for roughly half the state, a sash that runs from Toledo down through southeastern Ohio — responds to every home fire in its territory and supplies 100 percent of the blood for 40 Central Ohio hospitals.

In addition, most of its varied workload, from CPR training to communicating between the U.S. Armed Forces and their families, is done by volunteers.

“For every 100 people getting the work done, what the Red Cross does, executing its mission, 90 are volunteers,” Foster says. “Yet, you’d never know it. You pass volunteers in the hallway and our offices every day, all day long, and there is just incredible dedication and passion. You’d think they were paid staff because they are here every single day. And that’s really powerful.”

Last year, Ohio Buckeye Region volunteers put in more than 150,000 hours, which would convert to more than 70 full-time employees.

Caring for those within

Foster spent her first three months on a listening tour, intentionally trying to get to all 45 counties. She met with staff and volunteers and helped ensure meetings weren’t always in Columbus.

She also set up voluntary staff lunches on a monthly basis. There wasn’t a formal agenda and Foster, who describes herself as transparent, was willing to share what she knew.

“But I also want to learn from them. I wanted to make sure that the team understood that I was there for them, and that I’m there to listen. I’m there to hear their concerns. I’m there to answer their questions,” she says.

It’s about creating a culture of caring that matches the Red Cross’ mission for others.

Foster’s listening tour went on hiatus in the latter half of 2017. From August through November, large-scale disasters put the Red Cross into gray skies mode.

Now that the Red Cross has transitioned into blue skies — the normal course of business — Foster will follow up on issues she’s learned about and continue meeting with people.

After a hectic fall, Foster also encouraged the team to use their vacation time, which meant ensuring it was paid-time off, not pretend-time off where they still checked their email and responded.

The Red Cross would not be able to do what it does without its volunteers — some who have been around for decades, she says. In fact, one woman from Lima is in her 70th year as a volunteer.

Foster says whether it’s volunteer staff or paid staff, people are your richest asset and resource and should be valued as such.

“We always have to be thinking about our volunteers. Are we recruiting? Do we have the right number of volunteers? Are we engaging our volunteers, and how are we retaining our volunteers? Because we certainly don’t want to just be spinning our wheels. We have to be very deliberate and intentional about our volunteers and make sure that we are taking care of them and recognizing them for their efforts,” she says.

Intentional support

Along with strengthening the culture, Foster says the Buckeye Region will be moving toward greater connectivity between the humanitarian and biomedical services, such as leveraging the other’s relationships. This national initiative is looking to encourage more intentional support.

Another initiative is a new signature event: Sound the Alarm, Save a Life. From April 28 through May 13, the Ohio Buckeye Region will install 1,000 smoke alarms in Columbus and 1,000 smoke alarms in Toledo, as part of a 100-city campaign across the country.

“We know that having smoke alarms in your home reduces the risk of fatalities tremendously,” she says.

The alarms in Columbus will be given away on the streets where data indicates the most incidents of home fires occur. Teams will go door-to-door with ladders and drills to not only install the alarms, but also educate families.

Foster says there’s not a day that goes by that the Red Cross isn’t responding to fires. She receives a report every morning of all of the fires that the nonprofit responded to the previous day, and it can vary from a few to 20.