Above and beyond: Red Cross honors SHS teacher Kirsten Barnes

April 2016 Posted in Community, People
Kirsten Barnes working with the Minnesota Dept. of Fish and Wildlife assessing flooding in Minot, N.D.

Kirsten Barnes working with the Minnesota Dept. of Fish and Wildlife assessing flooding in Minot, N.D.

By Kristine Thomas

When Silverton High School teacher Kirsten Barnes signed up to volunteer for the American Red Cross in 2010, she thought she would be helping in Silverton if there was an emergency or disaster.

A social studies teacher, Barnes said her church, Silver Creek Fellowship, is a Red Cross Shelter site.

“I thought if something happened, I would be working there, setting up cots and helping people,” she said.

Little did she envision her training with the American Red Cross would be called upon to help people impacted by the flooding in North Dakota, wildfires in Colorado, tornadoes in Oklahoma and wildfires throughout Oregon.

“When I volunteered, I never thought I would be working on floods, wildfires and tornadoes in Oregon, let alone in other states,” Barnes said.

And she never imagined her volunteer work with the American Red Cross would lead her to be invited to the White House to be honored. 

Barnes was one of five individuals from the American Red Cross in Oregon to be presented with the National Red Cross Presidential Award for Excellence at a ceremony in Washington D.C. in March.

“The Red Cross President’s Award for Excellence recognizes staff and volunteers who have gone above and beyond to serve communities in need and advance the Red Cross mission,” Red Cross Cascades Region CEO Amy Shlossman said. “The five Oregonians awarded this prestigious national award in 2016 have demonstrated incredible dedication, commitment and service.”

Barnes, along with Dianne Mekkers and Cara Sloman, was given the Humanitarian Services Award for starting The Disaster Academy in 2012.

It took Barnes about six months to complete her training. Realizing many people didn’t have several weekends to dedicate to training, Barnes, Mekkers and Sloman created the Disaster Academy. The academy allows people to spend one weekend at Willamette University and complete training in the areas of preparedness, response and recovery. It is now a national model implemented throughout the United States.

In the academy’s first year, 2013, 150 people received training. In 2014, there were 225 people in Oregon. Last year, the Disaster Academy team was asked to replicate the training program for the Pacific Division. There will be 60 training institutes this year.

By having people in each state trained, it reduces response time, especially since volunteers don’t have to travel to the site.

“Because we offered the training in Guam, they were able to take care of themselves and they didn’t need to wait for volunteers to arrive to help,” she said.

Barnes is trained in disaster assessment, explaining her duties are to assess a home for its damage and to see if it’s able to be lived in. She works with FEMA and helps displaced families find transition shelter. She also has been a Disaster Action Team member, training coordinator and Disaster Academy co-coordinator.

The faster she does her job, the faster families can access the financial assistance they need to move forward after a disaster, she said.

During the school year, she does most of her volunteer work on the computer, including planning training, helping with coordinating volunteers and providing information. From July to Sept. 1, she goes wherever the Red Cross sends her. Barnes doesn’t get paid for her work, however, her travel expenses, food and lodging are provided. She laughs her lodging is often a cot in a high school gym.

Her first deployment was in June 2011 to Minot, N.D. to do assessments after flooding. She slept in a gym where temperatures reached 90 degrees and they were short of food for the first two days.

“In spite of the trying conditions, it was no big deal because we had a critical mission and everybody there was on the same page,” she said.

Last summer, she traveled throughout Oregon assessing damage after wildfires.

Part of her training is learning how to deal with the harsh realities of a disaster. Barnes’ philosophy for doing so is simple – just get done what needs to be done.

“Our jobs are to help our neighbors,” she said. “Although I do see a lot of bad, the good far outweighs the bad. I consider it a gift of the American people to be able to go out and do these different things to help those in need.”

Last October, she traveled to Roseburg to assist after the shooting at Umpqua Community College.

“With each situation, I learn something that helps me when called to the next situation,” she said. She is a self-proclaimed “history nerd,” which is one reason she decided to volunteer with the American Red Cross. She’s a fan of Clara Barton, who risked her life to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field during the Civil War. At 60, Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and led it for the next 23 years.

On Saturday, April 23, Barnes will work with Silverton High School’s Red Cross club to help install free smoke alarms. She knows three of her students who lost their homes in firses in the last year.

“I try to invest my time in helping others,” she said. “I am calm and that helps when assisting people during a time of chaos. We are there to help people ask the questions and move forward after a disaster.”

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