Wisconsin Region spotlight: Q&A with Jenny Legaspi

Every few months, we’re highlighting the incredible work toward the mission of the American Red Cross by one of our colleagues in the Wisconsin Region. Hopefully these short profiles provide a little light of positivity and inspiration across all lines of service in our humanitarian mission.

This latest profile is on Jenny Legaspi, a Disaster Program Manager based in Altoona with a drive that has brought her to humanitarian missions across the U.S. during the past 15 years. Questions were asked by members of the Region communications team, and edited for style and space.

American Red Cross: Tell us a little about your professional background and your role at the Red Cross, including some roles you’ve held during disasters.

Jenny Legaspi: I was introduced to the American Red Cross when a local disaster volunteer came and spoke to my class when I was a student at UW-Oshkosh. I decided to apply for an internship with the Red Cross and was fortunate to get connected to the Red Cross Outagamie Chapter in Appleton. I learned so much about the Red Cross and became very interested in pursuing a career in Disaster Services. After completing my 250-hour internship, my next Red Cross journey was an AmeriCorps member with the Red Cross West Bend Chapter in West Bend for one-and-a-half years. I supported the disaster preparedness program and became a DAT (Disaster Action Team) and national disaster responder. 

Jenny Legaspi dons a throwback Red Cross nursing outfit during a staff event.

My first opportunity to serve in a national Disaster Relief Operations (DRO) came in September 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. I spent three weeks in Lafayette, La. helping in a shelter that housed over 10,000 evacuees doing sheltering, feeding and casework. But just a couple of days before my deployment, I was interviewed for the Disaster Services Director position in the Red Cross Marathon County Chapter in Wausau. Sometime around the second week of my deployment, the Executive Director from Marathon County Chapter called and offered me the position! I still joke that I accepted the job because I was so tired and did realize what I was committing to. I also thought to myself that there had to be a reason that the call came through my cell phone when we were having so many difficulties with cell service in the area. So, in October 2005 after I came back from my deployment, I relocated to Wausau and spent three years with the Marathon County Chapter. In September 2008, I was offered a Disaster Services Director position at the Northwest Wisconsin Chapter office in Altoona. Since then, Eau Claire has been my home.

Since joining the Red Cross, I have been involved in several disaster relief operations (DRO) in Wisconsin, including some of the most devastating floods that affect the state in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Barron and Rusk Counties … were hit by a tornado May 2017 that is recorded to be the longest tornado that stayed on the ground in the state.

Some of the Relief Operations I’ve supported outside of Wisconsin include 2014 spring flooding in Illinois, California 2017 wildfires, Iowa tornadoes in 2018, Hurricane Lane & wildfires in Hawaii in 2018, Hurricane Florence in 2018 & Hurricane Dorian 2029 in North Carolina, and, last year, the major dam break in Michigan and wildfires in Oregon.

Positions I get assigned to during DROs are DRO Director, District Director, Government or Community Partner Liaison, or a Staff Advocate. I’ve also worked as a shelter worker, caseworker and disaster assessment team member during past operations. 

Each disaster response and deployment are unique. You learn and grow from each experience and from the people we work with. 

The mission of the Red Cross connects us to so many people. Can you share an anecdote about someone whose life was affected by your role or work at the Red Cross?

When I was in Lafayette during Hurricane Katrina working as a Red Cross caseworker, I assisted a mother with her Red Cross case. She told me that her and her son were separated when they had to evacuate their home in New Orleans. Her son left to help his girlfriend’s mom who was home-bound. She did not expect that their home was going to be impacted and that he was not going be able to return home. She had not been able to reach her son since the day she left home. Unfortunately, her cell phone along with all her belongs she had with her got wet when she had to evacuate so her phone was no longer working.

The day I was leaving, she came and looked for me to tell me she just picked-up her Red Cross client assistance card … and was on her way to get that new cell phone. We helped her during that time of need, but I never got the chance to find out what happened next. I left shortly after we spoke since those of us who are able to go back home were told we had to fly home since Hurricane Rita is making landfall. To this day, I still get a little emotional when I tell their story. I think about her and her son and wonder what happened next. 

Legaspi, middle, brainstorms service needs with colleagues during the recent Red Cross humanitarian response to thousands of evacuees with Afghanistan temporarily housed at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin.

How do you explain what you do to people outside the Red Cross?

The Red Cross Disaster Cycle Services is like a giant puzzle. It has many pieces, but we need each one complete the picture. We have disaster workforce who provide essential services to disaster victims (food, safe place to stay, comfort, care, recovery support), Red Cross liaisons who work with community partners during planning, response, and recovery, we train and prepare disaster volunteers to be ready to mobilize, we provide information to the public of Red Cross response and donation needs, and we also work internally with other team members within Red Cross. Each piece is different but they all fit together. When the puzzle if complete, you see the full picture of Red Cross Disaster Relief Operations.

What is your hidden talent? Or a hobby you have that people may not know about?

I enjoy cooking. I learned my Filipino cooking skills from my grandma and aunts. I picked-up American cooking skills from when I worked at a senior living apartment kitchen as a waitstaff and cook for six years. When we moved to the US in 1992, I did not know how to cook American food. Even when we made spaghetti, it was Filipino style. [Laughs]

Has anyone in your immediately circle (family or friends) been helped by the Red Cross? If so, how?

Before I started with the Red Cross, my aunt and uncle had a house fire and I remember seeing Red Cross volunteers arriving at their house to offer assistance. The fire department had called them to offer assistance. Luckily, the fire was contained in the laundry room and was put out very quickly. My aunt and uncle had lots of family in the area who were able to assist them, so they decided to decline Red Cross assistance. But it was very nice to see that if they did need help, Red Cross was there.

What does the Red Cross mean to you?  

Working in Disaster Cycle Services is unpredictable at times and could be stressful. But when a disaster client thanks you or give you a hug for helping them … a volunteer tells you they appreciate being part of our team and thanks you for calling them to help … and when you hear a partner praise the Red Cross … you get that combination of happy/satisfying/excited/fulfilling feeling that picks you up and motivates you to keep going and keep trying to do your best because you are making a difference. 

What would you say to inspire someone to join the Red Cross as a blood donor, volunteer or supporter?

My Red Cross journey started with one person, the disaster volunteer who came and spoke to my class. What she talked about sparked enough interested in me to check on the Red Cross. I started as an intern, became a disaster volunteer and now I’m a 15-year employee. 

I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to talk to someone from the Red Cross when they have the opportunity and get a glimpse of what it means to be a volunteer, blood donor or a financial donor – and the hundreds of thousands of lives touched by the Red Cross each day. The reports, statistics, posts, articles about the Red Cross work will bring it to a personal level when you hear from someone who has received assistance from Red Cross and from those who made it happen. You will realize that if you want to help, you can do that in many ways in the Red Cross.