Volunteer Spotlight: President Chris Thompson

Chris is our President and Co-Founder (together with her sister, Vice President Catherine Graham.) She’s also a very active day-to-day Skype disaster responder, trained Red Cross volunteer, co-chair of the Department of Homeland Security’s Virtual Social Media Working Group, and ex-Verizon exec. And she answers a lot of calls. Suffice to say, she’s quite the busy lady.

First, tell our curious readers about yourself and your role at HR.

I live in an ordinary small town in Virginia. Though I may be President of Humanity Road and its global operations, I am also very active in my local community. I help our local fire department and town officials stay prepared.

What’s the day-to-day experience of working at HR like?

Working daily with people from around the world is uplifting and heartwarming. Every person brings a different skillset and experience to our daily work life at Humanity Road. I love working and watching our volunteers grow in their skills and confidence. There is a rhythm to the day, like a tide rising and falling, or like the sound of a precision orchestra tuning before a performance.

And then there are the calls. When my phone rings, I never know who will be on the other end. Sometimes it will be an organization that needs help. I have gotten calls from seafaring vessels on their way to disaster, and from neighbors next door here in Virginia looking for their loved ones in Tuscaloosa. From the parents of children who were impacted by Sandy in New Jersey and needed to get messages through, to first responders on their way to a disaster to needing information about the situation on the ground. It can be very fast-paced, and sometimes very intense, but it is always fulfilling to be able to help others.

What sort of philosophy do you bring to the job? What keeps you going?

“Everybody deserves the right to call for help, and someone should hear that call.” That’s my philosophy, and the epiphany which inspired me to give disaster victims that right.

(Speaking of calls, Chris got called away in the middle of the interview, and then had to focus on a minor earthquake in Nevada. We had to resume next Friday.)

What keeps me going?… Every time a life is saved, or a family is reunited, or food and water gets through to those in most need… it makes me realize that Humanity Road volunteers really make a difference.

What’s your side of the Humanity Road origin story?

I put together my first [disaster response] concept in my spare time, in 1999 when the Internet was still young. And I built it over time as technology grew.

When Katrina struck, I was in Virginia. I’d just spoken with a fellow executive at Verizon, who planned to donate a large group of computers and networking equipment, and who was looking for a recipient. That day, [my sister] Cat Graham called me, and told me her tiny Red Cross center was getting an unexpected amount of displaced people sheltering in and around Atlanta. One must understand… Atlanta is 470 miles from New Orleans. Nobody anticipated that 10,000 or more would take shelter there… in hotels, friends’ homes… some sleeping in their cars.

I immediately called my friend at Verizon and explained the situation and what, why and where I needed that equipment. He drove the equipment himself, from Boston to Atlanta. We had a cup of coffee at a Waffle House, and he got back in his van and drove home the same night. His generosity helped thousands. And Cat documented every procedure we used. She led the operation and trained the volunteers.

That was probably our pivotal moment in defining what would one day be Humanity Road.

What’s the most important/memorable HR relief operation you were involved with, and how did you directly help? What was it like?

There are so many. If I had to choose just one, it would be Haiyan in the Philippines. Much like how we are helping Nepal, we would send a morning report to a large aid organization. We’d give them a list of priority locations based on population, path of the storm, and the presence or absence of social media reports.

On one particular morning, several days into our response, we mentioned a certain location in our report. It was known to be populated, but we had seen no social media mentions at all.

That day… 121 people were rescued from that location… Some from an atoll where they had been awash for days.

I cried.

How far would you say HR’s disaster response has come since then?

We are growing and learning from every disaster. But I would love to be further along with scaling our organization. There is so much more we could do with more capacity.

Anything else you’d like to mention about your work with HR that we haven’t covered?

I just want to say how grateful I am for our volunteers, and also to those who support us financially, so that people and animals impacted by disaster continue to get the help they need. Thank you!

Anything in particular you’d like to say to anyone who’s thinking of volunteering for HR?

Don’t wait until disaster is in the headlines. Volunteer now. Train now. Practice now. The life you save may be your own.

Thank you for your time! You’re welcome!

Our President has always been answering calls, from Cat’s first call after Katrina, to every day-to-day call for disaster help she’s picked up at HR. Even before HR began, she’s been building a connected and effective organization, one which routes those calls to anyone who can answer them. She’s both a worker and a leader, and we’d hardly function without her.

Until next time, and our next volunteer’s story!

Joshua Nelson is a freelance copywriter from Virginia, writing pro-bono for HR. Literary champion of JUSTICE! (and stuff) by day, creative nerd by night.