Carrying on a Century-Long Family Tradition Volunteering for the Red Cross
By Clarice Nassif Ransom, Volunteer
Volunteer: Joe Cattaneo
Resides: McLean, Virginia
Profession: Retired President of the Glass Packaging Institute and part-time consultant
Length of Volunteer Service: 3 years and counting
Length of Employment with the American Red Cross: 12 years, early in his career
Joe Cattaneo is carrying on a century-long family tradition of volunteering for the Red Cross, which dates back to World War I and spans two nations, the United States and Italy.
Joe’s maternal grandmother served as a volunteer for the Red Cross during World War I in Italy and Joe’s mother followed in those footsteps, serving as a volunteer during World War II, in Italy. She married Joe’s American father in Rome and settled down in St Louis, Missouri.
“I was influenced by my mother to donate my time to help others in need, as she did so in words and by her actions working for the Visiting Nurses Association late in life,” said Joe.
Some of Joe’s fondest keepsakes are his grandmother’s Red Cross identification card from Italy and a Red Cross celebrity cookbook, which has recipes from celebrated actors from the early 1900’s, such as Al Jolson, Harry Houdini, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Russell, Mary Pickford, and Sophie Tucker. The cookbook was dedicated to the American Red Cross and the Actor’s Fund. Joe thinks the proceeds of the cookbook went to both organizations. The cookbook was acquired by Joe’s great uncle, who was a mess sergeant during World War I. Joe inherited the cookbook from his great uncle, who kept it in a special chest along with military medals and memorabilia.
So, Joe could not help but step up and be part of the American Red Cross organization, first, as a part-time employee in college during the Vietnam War era, later as a full-time employee, and now, as a volunteer, post-retirement.
“I started working part-time for the American Red Cross when I was in college,” says Joe. “The father of one of my fraternity brothers was the Assistant Director of the Service to Military Families Department at the St. Louis Bi-State Chapter. At that time, during the Vietnam War, I started doing casework – interviewing local families of military personnel stationed overseas and helping them to learn how to handle a budget and live without a spouse. Sometimes, we would deliver messages to service members from their families, such as the birth of a baby or an illness of a family member.”
Joe eventually landed a full-time permanent job with the American Red Cross where he worked for 12 years in three states – Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio, doing everything from serving as a field representative, to chapter management, and deputy division manager.
“Some of my most memorable times working for the American Red Cross was when I was a field representative in Illinois,” said Joe. “I worked statewide with various small chapters and organizations. I would speak about the Red Cross at various functions such as the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and conduct audits of different chapters. I remember that one small chapter kept all their financial records in a shoe box – of course, this was all before computers.”
Joe also reminisced about the people whose lives he was able to touch working for the Red Cross.
“During the post-Vietnam era, refugees were relocating to the United States, many settling first at military installations before assimilating into communities. The American Red Cross would offer night courses to teach the refugees English. We also provided job placement for them. I even hosted a party at my apartment where we had folks attend not only from Vietnam, but also from Korea, Cambodia, and Eastern Europe. Everyone brought a dish from their homeland and it was a delicious potluck. One of the fellows was a tailor and made me a suit as a gift.”
Joe then became a Red Cross chapter manager in Wisconsin, where he was a community leader, promoting the Red Cross.
“I had a monthly radio show,” said Joe. “I would talk about blood drives and their locations, swimming and safety courses we were offering, and I would recruit volunteers. It was a great way to promote the Red Cross.”
After leaving the Red Cross as an employee, Joe became a partner in an Ohio advertising firm for nine years, then moved to the Washington, D.C. area to become Vice President of Marketing for the Glass Packaging Institute, one of his former clients, and eventually President of the Glass Packaging Institute where he retired in 2012, after a 20-year career with the trade association.
“I was looking at doing something on a voluntary basis for my community after I retired, so I contacted the American Red Cross in Fairfax,” said Joe. “I started volunteering as a Community Leader for the Red Cross, representing the Red Cross at exhibits and attending various community meetings and fundraising activities. I was then referred to be the head of volunteer services to participate on their volunteer intake screening team. In volunteer intake, we screen people who are interested in volunteering – we are sort of like matchmakers. We gauge their level of interest, and what they want to do, and find them volunteer opportunities that fit their backgrounds and our needs.”
In January alone, there were 400 volunteer applicants for the Red Cross in the National Capital Region that needed to be screened for the right volunteer opportunity. The time commitment is flexible and the ways to help out are endless – from blood donor services, to disaster relief, to community engagement, to a home fire campaign, to helping out at military hospitals and installations. Their volunteer opportunities are endless.
“We always welcome volunteers,” said Joe. “For me, volunteering for the American Red Cross completes my life as it is now. When I do this, I feel active. I get to interact with young like-minded people, and I look forward to it every day. It is not like a job, that can sometimes get tedious. There is always someone to help, someone whose life you can make better helping through volunteer service.”
When Joe is not volunteering for the American Red Cross, he is helping out many other organizations, including heading up a food bank, helping to tutor kids, and providing help for the homeless. He is also a music aficionado who once played piano, trumpet, guitar, and was in a band in high school. He also enjoys symphonies, operas, theater and sports.
“I am a St. Louis Cardinal fan forever,” concluded Joe.