Volunteer Spotlight: Vice President Catherine Graham

While all of Humanity Road’s volunteers work hard to save lives, some of us have uniquely awesome humanitarian stories to share. In this monthly Volunteer Spotlight, you’ll hear about Humanity Road’s best!

Catherine Graham is one of HR’s co-founders, and our Vice-President. She’s a social media expert, who’s helped New Zealand and the U.S. military with social media emergency management, along with too many other positions and accomplishments to do justice here.

She’s always active coordinating our volunteers, and helping them collect and share disaster info. Most recently, she helped coordinate our response to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, getting day-by-day info to aid agencies so they knew who needed what urgent help where. Luckily, no one ever told her that executives have people for that!

Tell us about yourself, and what you do day-to-day for HR.

I’m a creative person by nature, and so I enjoy helping to create. There is a lot of opportunity for creative people – anything from images to exercises. We are a self-directed team – [Humanity Road is] collective behavior. Everyone is working simultaneously on very different projects. One day I may be working with someone who is writing content for tweeting, and another I may be helping put together [a disaster] exercise for twenty-two nations. It’s small tasks and big ones, but all of them are fun, and my day is sprinkled with ‘Aha!’ moments, surprises and small celebrations. When we have a big event, the team realigns itself, digs in and delivers. It’s amazing to watch!

Big tasks are easy to conquer with teamwork!

So, how did the story of Humanity Road begin?

For each of us, our first moment with Humanity Road started long before it was born. It begins with the decisions we make in the moments that define our life. Like deciding whether or not to get on a train, and then finding that your intuition saved your life. Or to help someone we see struggling to cross a street. This is Humanity at its best.

For me, it started when I was standing in an empty Wal-Mart, helping my local Red Cross respond to thousands of citizens impacted by Katrina [who were sheltering in Atlanta.] We were shorthanded, and needed a way to help others help themselves. I called my sister [Chris Thompson, HR’s current President], who was working for Verizon. That started a chain reaction – she had already come up with a communications plan to help others. She put it into action, and within 24 hours she had 50 computers donated and delivered to me by a Verizon executive – basically an internet cafe. This created a communications network for the citizens [of New Orleans], and also for aid agencies on-site.

So, from there, how did you … turn this humanitarian communications idea [Chris came] up with into the globe-sweeping organization HR is today?

I had a day job in Atlanta, but my employer was laying everyone off. One day, I literally walked into work and had that intuition, the kind I mentioned earlier. I had this intuition that I needed to change my life. I needed to stop living it day-by-day in a job that just happened to come into my life, and live it with purpose. I was having dreams about disasters happening; I could see them, and I knew some of what was coming. I wasn’t sure what I wanted or needed to do, but I knew I needed to make that life-defining decision. That day when I arrived at work, and there was a pen on the middle of my desk, laying there as if it was a gift. It had a simple message printed on it. I never saw the pen before or after that day. It said, “Make your destiny.”

I quit my job that day. When Hurricane Ike struck Texas [in 2008], Chris called and said, “Want to do it again?” And we did.

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

Wow, that’s a difficult one; there are so many! During each disaster, our team grows bigger, better and stronger. In our first year, I recall a day when we changed our method of collecting information, and it improved our speed and our ability to coordinate. I would have to say Typhoon Haiyan was probably another defining moment for us; the team rallied together, adjusted our approach for the event, and started publishing morning reports for an activation request we had received. We were relaying location after location to a large aid agency who was directly delivering aid to each of those locations. Each day, the team would publish our reports at 7am local time, so that the local responders had this information in time to plan their day. The team worked as one unit; they didn’t need a team leader or director; they knew the goals; they understood what needed to be done, and did it. It was really one of the largest and longest events we had supported. This laid the groundwork for what we just did in Vanuatu.

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

Yes – I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to volunteer, but if you do, make sure you take some time off to go unplugged. The typical disaster volunteer is anything but typical. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters; they are humanitarians, they are retired, or students; they are over eighty and under twenty. Their size, shape, age, backgrounds and interests are infinite. But they all have one thing in common; they are humanitarians. To be a humanitarian, you donate time, money or expertise to a cause. But we all also must rest, make time for ourselves. A wise friend of mine said, “If you donate yourself to a cause, don’t forget to donate time to yourself as well.” Set aside 10% of your time for yourself – body, mind and soul. Take time away, take a walk, read a good book, watch a sunset. Set three days out of each month to yourself. You deserve it, we deserve it.

Anything else you would say to someone who’s considering volunteering for HR? Why is it a fulfilling cause?

Because when it comes down to it, we’re helping our neighbor, and that just feels good. It just so happens that sometimes our neighbor is 3,000 miles away.

Alright, unless you have anything else to add, that should be all.

Thank you!

You’re welcome. Ever been interviewed before?

Yes, but not like this; it was fun! Thank you!

Thank you for your time! You’re welcome!

Our VP is living proof of HR’s humanitarian ideals. From that first networking café for the citizens of battered New Orleans, to the globe-spanning organization which she keeps running every day, she’s never forgotten that defining moment.

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.