Red Cross director retiring after 23 years

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Maybe Joan Isom can go back to enjoying snow again after the New Year arrives, instead of fearing the worst of traffic snarls happening on Interstate 77.
In the past, Isom — as executive director for the Woods River Chapter of the American Red Cross and as the manager for disaster services — had been responsible for finding places for the stranded motorists to stay if the interstate got shut down and if their vehicles broke down.
While Isom likes snow, she quickly adds that she isn’t a fan of the way it makes for slick roads and manages to disrupt traffic.
“I just stay drawn in knots [worrying] where we would put people if I-77 is closed,” Isom said.
It’s happened before, so she can’t really relax during the winter.
After Dec. 31, that responsibility will fall to someone else after Isom officially retires. The relief agency continues to look for Isom’s successor.

She began her association with Red Cross in 1986 as a CPR and first aid instructor.
Red Cross named her the volunteer executive director in 1989. Isom started getting paid in April 2004.
“They let me practice a while,” she joked.
Her time as executive director in 1989 began with a bang.
“I started out by being handed a box of first aid books and taking it home — no records, no manuals or anything else,” Isom remembered. “Following that, I had one and a half days of training before [Hurricane] Hugo hit.
“A lot of my disaster training was on-the-job training,” she recalled. “A lot of trials by fire.”
Carroll, Grayson and Wythe counties and Galax got hit pretty hard by the deadly hurricane. After Isom submitted the disaster assessment that rescue squad volunteers compiled while helping victims, Red Cross sent in reinforcements from far and wide.
For two weeks, local relief officials received assistance from volunteers coming in from all over Virginia to help when downed trees disrupted the electric grid.
Woods River chapter started training volunteers to handle disasters after Hugo struck. The chapter now has 45 disaster-trained human resource volunteers as a result of the lessons from Hugo.
Also memorable was the bluegrass jam they held to celebrate closing the emergency shelter when everyone could go back to their homes.
The next-largest mobilization of local Red Cross resources fell during the Low Gap Mountain fire in 2000, when volunteers fed 3,500 firefighters and evacuees over a four-day period while they worked to extinguish that forest fire.
Woods River Chapter volunteers also assisted several families who fled New Orleans to the Twin Counties after Hurricane Katrina left its wake of destruction.
Volunteers also opened shelters after the July 1 derecho wind storm knocked out power to most of the Twin Counties and sent help to Pulaski and Glade Springs after devastating tornadoes went through those communities.
Feeding emergency workers and even police is another responsibility that Red Cross takes on. Isom said that, besides taking food to fire scenes, Woods River handed out more than 200 baloney sandwiches to the responders.
“It’s times like that it’s just so amazing to me that people are so willing to come together and just get it done,” she said.
Other Red Cross duties are needed more on the individual level, like helping get messages between soldiers overseas and their loved ones back home and families with members across national borders.
Red Cross also assisted at drownings, put on disaster training and pursued fundraising.
Isom feels blessed that she’s been able to intercede on behalf of those who have needed assistance over the years.
“I love helping people,” she said. “I have received a lot of joy and blessings by helping people who were hurting from disasters.”
After storms and fires, Isom has gone out to give comfort to those who have lost everything. “Sometimes help just comes in the means of listening, a hug, a warm blanket following a fire...”
A Pipers Gap native who never moved more than five miles from home, Isom volunteered in her community in other ways before joining Red Cross.
She served for 25 years on Pipers Gap Rescue Squad after being a charter member and a junior squad advisor. She was a PTA president, a Boy Scout and Girl Scout leader and support group leader for the U.S. Army Reserve 424th Transportation Company based in Galax.
Her willingness to get involved in the community service led to her being asked to work with Red Cross.
Isom now looks forward to spending time with her family and relaxing.
“I’m going to take time for just friends and self, reinvent myself,” Isom said. “After that I’ll decide what to do with myself.”
Her retirement activities probably will include spending time at home, reading and probably reviving her garden, she said.
And after that, Isom will probably go back to volunteering for the Red Cross.
“For the people she serves, Joan is the Red Cross,” wrote Lee Clark, CEO of the Red Cross, Virginia Mountain Region, in an e-mail to The Gazette. “She lives out our mission of preventing and alleviating human suffering in the face of emergencies. “She has done this in very tangible ways by mobilizing the tremendous power of dedicated volunteers,” he added.  
“She has build a solid following of passionate volunteers who ensure that the Red Cross is strong in Woods River.  She has invited donors to give generously to support our work.  
“Because of Joan's efforts, the people of Woods River support the Red Cross with their time, talent and treasure because they know they can depend on Red Cross to be there when the community needs us most,” Clark wrote.