Saturday, March 21, 2015

Endless Opportunities

March is Red Cross Month

Written by: Grace Ly, volunteer
Grace Ly serving the Red Cross in Iraq

It was July 2007 and I was in Pamplona, Spain. We hadn’t planned on running with the bulls; in fact I had purchased a very expensive spot on a balcony where we could watch the running of the bulls at a safe elevation. However, this was our last day, so we easily convinced ourselves by asking "When will we ever get another chance to run with the bulls?” Well, the answer to that question was quite obviously ‘never,’ and with that we took our places amongst a crowd of others who had also decided to partake in the infamous running of the bulls. I had to take a minute and think back on how exactly I ended up on a cobblestone street in Pamplona, spurred on by the threat of a 1,700 pound bull.

I always knew I wanted to see the world; I just had no idea how to make that happen. After graduating from college my best friend called me excitedly, “Hey Grace, I decided to do some volunteer work with the American Red Cross and guess what I found? They have a division called ‘Services to the Armed Forces’ where you get to work with the military. You need to check it out.” So I did. I couldn’t believe it, it literally was my dream job. I had been that little girl in 5th grade sending care packages to service members in Iraq. I was the one rallying all my classmates to send letters to our soldiers. Now, here was my chance to actually serve our military. I sent in my application immediately. I was rejected. I didn’t have any relevant work experience. Of course I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop me. I began volunteering at my local Red Cross chapter and I applied for an administrative assistant job at the Red Cross to get my foot in the door. I was hired. Six months later I applied to switch divisions and was finally accepted into the Services to the Armed Forces.

This job with the Red Cross was going to let me accomplish my goal of seeing the world. I would be stationed on military bases around the globe providing Red Cross services to our military. I was so excited to get the acceptance call that I could barely contain myself. I remember my parents driving home and me blasting out the front door, exploding across the yard to tell them the good news. My first assignment? Camp Lejeune, NC. I had to laugh at the irony. I thought I was going to see the world; turns out I wasn’t even leaving my home state. I was just driving 5 hours up the road. But I loved Camp Lejeune. It is one of the nicest military bases I have ever been to, and I started gaining experience very quickly. Each week I briefed 400 Marines, organizing fundraisers and directing volunteer events. I was at Camp Lejeune for 7 months before being told I was transferring to South Korea.

I didn’t even know where South Korea was on a map. The plane that took me to South Korea was the biggest plane I had ever seen in my entire life. Fifteen hours later I was on the other side of the world. I spent the entire year of 2005 in South Korea, and it was the best year of my life. I had so much fun I didn’t want to leave. In fact I asked if I could extend. Professionally I was growing; personally I was having the time of my life. I took advantage of my home base in South Korea and traveled to Mongolia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. I even took a weekend trip into North Korea and hiked the Diamond Mountains.

I was told I couldn’t extend in Korea, they needed me in Iraq where I would receive care packages to distribute to the soldiers. Working in Iraq was a very gratifying experience. It was hard work with little rest, but being there, being on the ground gave me a real sense of purpose, real meaning. These service members needed the American Red Cross and we were there for them.

After my deployment to Iraq I was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany for over a year. Germany was amazing and of course I took advantage of living in Europe. I traveled all over; England, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Czech Republic to name a few. I went dogsledding in Finland for a week. I partied at Carnival in Italy. I grew professionally and personally.

I spent almost 5 years working for the American Red Cross before I decided to return to the United States. I moved to Washington, DC and decided the only place I wanted to work was at The White House. I sent in an application. Thanks to the volunteer management work I had done at the Red Cross I was hired. My position was to travel around the United States and present individuals with the “President’s Volunteer Service Award.” All of those briefings I had done throughout my career at the Red Cross prepared me for this position.

The Bush administration ended and we were required to find our next opportunity. I found mine at the Central Intelligence Agency. I guess all of my travels abroad made me an appealing candidate. I know that my experience working for the American Red Cross is what led me to where I am today. Working for the Red Cross was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It allowed me to fulfill a dream. I traveled the world. I explored 30 countries. I lived abroad for 3 years. I hiked mountains in North Korea, rode a camel in the Gobi Desert, crawled through the Chu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, experienced Oktoberfest, rode elephants in Thailand, and explored castles in Germany. I did all of this while gaining professional experience and saving financially. The Red Cross really allowed me to create a solid foundation on which to build a successful and unique career and a wonderful life.

I urge you to explore the opportunities at the American Red Cross and to get involved. You never know what doors will open, what opportunities lay ahead, where your involvement will lead you. The Red Cross allowed me to fulfill a dream. It may allow you to fulfill one of yours. Maybe one day you will find yourself delivering a Red Cross message to a soldier, or wrapping a blanket around a flood victim, or donating blood or teaching a first aid class. And maybe one day, you too will find yourself on the cobblestone streets of Pamplona Spain running with the bulls. 

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