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After 25 years as a Red Cross volunteer, Dennis Kelly is still helping disaster victims get back on their feet

STAFF PHOTOS: VERN UYETAKE  - Dennis Kelly was honored recently for being a volunteer with the American Red Cross for 25 years, helping disaster victims get back on their feet.

When you stay as busy as Dennis Kelly, 25 years can fly by pretty quickly.

Aside from his career as an advertising and real estate executive, Kelly has helped raise his two sons into adulthood and has been a volunteer coach on many of their sports teams. He’s stayed active himself, exercising and playing sports to stay in shape.

But Kelly also has made a significant impact on the lives of others through his volunteer work with the American Red Cross. Still, it came as a bit of a surprise to Kelly when he was honored recently for 25 years of service to the local Red Cross chapter.

“I had lost track,” said Kelly, a Clackamas resident who is managing principal broker for Windermere Stellar Real Estate branches in Lake Oswego and West Linn. “I started out as a blood donor, but when I started taking medication for my asthma, I couldn’t donate blood anymore. So I started asking around wondering, ‘What else can you do at the Red Cross?’”

Kelly continued his service as an emergency response volunteer and soon became a volunteer team leader. His role — like that of the Red Cross — has evolved over time, and he now serves as public affairs volunteer, informing the media about Red Cross activities statewide and responding to media inquiries.

“For someone to have that consistency with their time and commitment is really remarkable,” said Paula Fasano Negele, communications director for the American Red Cross Cascades Region. “It’s challenging enough to have a job and a family, but to add a significant volunteer piece to that equation takes a real commitment to your community.”

Red Cross volunteers are usually on call one week per month, helping respond to disasters that can happen at any hour of the day. Kelly has countless stories about receiving notice in the middle of the night and responding to calls that kept him busy well into the next morning.

“About every 36 hours or so we respond to some type of disaster,” Kelly said, “and about 85 percent of the time, it’s a fire.”

Kelly remembers one of the first times he was asked to take on a larger role in local disaster response. It was around the time the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay area, requiring assistance from several local Red Cross responders, including the then-chairman of disaster services.

“He called and said he needed someone to take the pager for a week and kind of be in charge,” Kelly said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh sure, how many times could it go off?’”

He quickly got his answer: Kelly said the pager went off eight times the very first night between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. All the while he was caring for his infant son, whom Kelly packed up in a car carrier and brought along for the ride.

“There had been a propane tank leak at a gas station and they had to evacuate some of the nearby homes,” Kelly said. “I just had to go out there and carry the baby around. He basically slept through the whole thing, but I remember thinking, ‘You guys can keep the pager.’

“But then I kind of became hooked.”

Making a difference

In responding to disasters, Red Cross volunteers often are meeting people for the first time “at one of the worst times of their lives,” Kelly said.

He recalled responding to a house fire in the middle of the night where he met a father and son whose home had been destroyed. The two, Kelly said, were standing in the pouring rain dressed in only their underwear and wrapped in blankets provided to them by the fire department.

Kelly said he greeted them, helped calm them and took their clothing sizes. He then drove to a Fred Meyer to purchase some clothing and jackets for them to wear, but when he returned he noticed that the father, despite having lost all his possession in the fire, seemed very concerned about the possibility of missing work that same day.

About six months later, Kelly found out why.

“I was in the Red Cross office and someone said, ‘You have a piece of mail,’” Kelly recalled. “It didn’t really have my name on it but someone had opened the letter and figured out it was meant for me. It was a letter from the gentleman in the fire saying he didn’t know whom it was who showed up to help us in the middle of the night, but he wanted me to know that he and his son were thriving.

“It was then that I learned that his wife had passed away the year before, and that he was on the second day of a new job that he couldn’t afford to lose. He said, ‘We thought we were going to be back living on the street, but you guys showed up and helped us get back on our feet.’”

Kelly said whenever he starts to feel burned out from his volunteer efforts, “Those are the things you remember. Those are the things that rekindle that spirit.”

Fringe benefits

Over time, Kelly became a team leader, training other volunteers and deploying them in roles that best suited their abilities. His understanding of the work necessary to help disaster victims also helped his fellow volunteers make the most of their efforts.

“A lot of volunteers have a heart of gold, but some might not have the ability to perform the function they want to do,” Kelly said. “You have to determine what they are good at and where we can make best use of their skills and still let them earn that value and respect they get from volunteering.”

In this role, Kelly also came to know himself a little better and started to see how volunteering impacted other areas of his life.

“It’s made me a better parent. It’s made me a better manager and co-worker,” he said. “It’s made me a better person.”

“He’s extremely professional and just a great communicator,” Fasano Negele said. “He’s always very positive and always willing to go above and beyond.”

Now 62 years old with 25 years of service under his belt, Kelly said he has no plans of slowing down. He said he sees a little of himself in his sons and their willingness to volunteer their time to help others in need, and plans to continue in his role with Red Cross public affairs.

“You will go through burnout, especially those in-the-field disaster responders,” Kelly said. “It’s an incredibly stressful job. But there is an incredible sense of reward when you hear the stories from caseworkers about how these people are back up on their feet. You think, ‘Wow, we did something good.’”

Contact Phil Favorite by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Kelly is the managing broker for the Lake Oswego and West Linn branches of Windermere Stellar Real Estate.

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