Floods of ’93 opened Schaffer’s eyes to career with Red Cross
Oregon native Leslie Schaffer’s first experience with disaster relief came when the South Dakota town where she was living flooded in 1993. That experience hooked her on a career with the American Red Cross, and she became a chapter director three years later. Schaffer, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and master’s in education, arrived in Des Moines last month to serve as the executive director for the Red Cross’ Central Iowa region, which serves residents of Polk, Warren, Dallas, Madison and Marion counties.
How did your background in health and education lead you to the Red Cross?
Starting in high school, I took many Red Cross classes because of my interest in physical education. I was around swimming pools a lot, so I became a CPR and first aid instructor and a lifeguard instructor and instructor trainer. After I got married, my (now former) husband, a college professor, and I moved around quite a bit, and I would volunteer with the Red Cross wherever we were living.
What prompted you to become a disaster relief volunteer?
I was living in South Dakota and working part time for the Red Cross as a fund-raiser when the Floods of 1993 hit our state. At the time, I had no experience as a disaster volunteer. I was living in Madison, a small town of only about 6,000 people in South Dakota, when one night the local civil defense director knocked on my door. It was like the Fourth of July and it was pouring down rain, and he said that we had to open a shelter and evacuate part of the town. I told him that I didn’t do that kind of work, and he said, “Well, you do now.” He handed me the keys to the armory, told me to do what I had to do and he left.
What did you do after the shock wore off?
Luckily I had some phone numbers, so I immediately got on the phone with some people who had disaster relief training. We got some volunteers going and we ended up opening up a shelter. We had more than 100 people in the shelter that first night, including people whom we had to evacuate from a nursing home. It was just a mess. It was raining and there were thunderstorms and tornado warnings. There was no electricity. It was a wild night, but we got people to safety and we had the shelter.
What did you take away from that experience?
I liked being able to help people. It’s really hard work, but very rewarding. After we got through the flood, I started volunteering to go out on disaster teams, like what people were doing in Florida after Hurricane Dennis hit. Usually what happens is people go through a series of trainings and they’re prepared to go out on disasters. What happened with me is that I had my disaster and then I backfilled my training. But it’s like any other event in life. Life happens and all of a sudden, it kind of takes you on a different course.
What has been the most challenging disaster you’ve assisted with?
It’s really difficult when a disaster impacts where you live because you never get away from it. When you go out on disaster relief into someone else’s neighborhood or someone else’s community, it’s somewhat easier, I think. I was the executive director of the chapter based in Reno, Nev., when the town flooded on New Year’s Day in 1997. That was a tough six months leading that chapter because you’re constantly in it and you’re constantly trying to help and trying to do things, and it can be really stressful at that point in time.
How does your background in physical education help you in your job?
I think exercise is really important for people like Red Cross employees who are in very stressful positions. Any time you’re responding to disasters and you know that you’re on call on a 24-hour basis, there really isn’t a lot of down time. Last week we had the YMCA come in to talk to sign up employees for YMCA memberships. I made the phone call and did everything to get the guy here because I think exercise is very important, and I want to make sure that we have opportunities.
What kind of exercise routine do you have?
I get up in the morning at 5:30 and go for a walk and then hit the gym after work. One of my big things is to be able to find a gym close to my house so I know that I can be in compliance. I was really into yoga classes in Las Vegas and I was doing it almost every day. But I’ve been out of it for about a month now, and once you leave yoga, it hurts to get back in. The other day I was unpacking and I found my yoga DVD. I’ll probably use the DVD to limber up before I go back to class so I don’t kill myself.
What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make since you moved here three weeks ago?
There haven’t really been any major adjustments so far. I found my Starbucks. That was important. I’ve been able to find everything that there was in Las Vegas. It’s not like I’m missing much. I’m not much of a casino person, but there is one here. I like this community. The people here are really friendly, and I’ve been able to make some friends and do some social things.