Keeping Watch

Relief starts here

by Cindy Bernhardt

photoRob Levine, executive director of the northern Vermont chapter of the American Red Cross, brought to the job the experience of a lifetime interest in volunteerism peppered with a career in radio and his years as an NBA executive. It all boils down to a communications job, he says.

Preparedness. That’s a term Rob Levine knows well. His trans-global career path from radio sports announcer to National Basketball Association executive? All preparation, Levine says, for his current role as executive director of the northern Vermont chapter of the American Red Cross, on Mansfield Avenue in Burlington. 

“I won the daily double!” he exclaims. “I’m doing a job I love in a community where we wanted to live.”

Levine’s volunteering roots run deep. Levine’s sister is a social worker, and his wife, Cindy, and their two daughters, ages 12 and 14, are involved in volunteer work. “My dad was out at faith- and community-based meetings more nights than he was home,” Levine recalls. After retiring to a town near Tampa, Levine’s dad, who has since died, “got so worked up about traffic light curb-cut issues he got himself elected mayor!” says Levine.

Levine points out that it’s the 300-plus active volunteers who are the proverbial lifeline at the chapter. “The fundamental principle of the Red Cross is that we’re a volunteer organization,” he says. “We’re here to keep the trains running on time and the lights on; but it’s the volunteers who make the difference, and the more we empower our volunteers, the better we can serve Vermonters.”

Serving the eight upper-tier counties of the state, the northern Vermont chapter’s territory covers over 5,000 square miles. Its mission is the same as that of the national Red Cross: to provide relief to victims of disaster and help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. The chapter was started in Burlington in 1917.

Its prevention and preparedness programs run the gamut from babysitter training and lifesaving instruction to children’s swimming lessons and education for 30 HIV prevention professionals. Training outreach efforts extend to workplaces and schools; in 2006 alone the chapter trained more than 10,000 people in lifesaving, CPR and first aid.  

The Blood Center is operated by a separate branch, Northern New England Blood Services, because the center operates regionally, while the chapter provides services only in northern Vermont.

What comes to mind first about the Red Cross, however, is its history of helping people affected by disaster. Last year the chapter aided some 3,600 people impacted by disaster by providing food, shelter, and health and mental health services. “We’re the first and last line of defense, particularly in rural areas,” says Levine. 

He cites a recent Orleans fire that affected a family. “Recovery starts the moment fire breaks out. Those people needed food, clothing and a place to stay, and that’s what our disaster action teams provide.” Teams use the chapter’s mobile kitchen and shelter trailers to provide aid for disaster victims and for responding emergency personnel. 

photoThe chapter’s mission is “to provide relief to victims of disaster and help people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies.” Mike Higgins, manager of community preparedness education, works in an emergency response vehicle with Angela Russell, also in that department.

Dedicated volunteers are key to the accomplishment of the organization’s goals. “It’s our job to let the community know who we are and what our values are. Then folks decide if it’s a good fit for them,” says Levine. “If so, we use all our human resource and management systems to support them. When serious people are given a serious charge, they’ll be involved in a meaningful way and have a positive volunteer experience — whether it’s 10 hours a week or 10 hours a month.”

Tina Wood is one of those volunteers. Appointed chairwoman of volunteer emergency services last year, she has been the Red Cross’ Caledonia County coordinator for disaster services for six years. Wood became involved after the St. Johnsbury Daniels Block fire in 2000. “I felt the need to help and be involved as a first responder,” she says.

To be able to immediately offer help to someone who’s suffered a crisis is extremely rewarding work, says Wood. She and her husband, Jay, a paramedic, sometimes respond together to emergencies. “How can you not help someone who has suffered such a loss, knowing you have a warm bed to go home to?” she asks.

Volunteers have been re-energized during Levine’s tenure, says Wood. “Rob fully supports us and has created positive change by putting policies and procedures in place that add structure for volunteers; and there’s greater emphasis to get dormant volunteers more active and involved.”

The chapter also strives to attract young adult volunteers. Work-study programs are offered through the University of Vermont. A youth leadership retreat, organized jointly with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, develops skills in middle school and high school students. Setting a single-day CPR training record for the chapter last year, Johnson State College’s campus program, CPR Blowout, brought in new volunteers among the 109 students, faculty and community members who attended. 

Certainly, it isn’t often that a man with a vision to be a political consultant segues to the Red Cross via the NBA. Levine will say the road, despite some turns, was right on track.

A western Massachusetts native, Levine attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he met Cindy, earned his bachelor of science in an independent concentration of political science, mass communications and business science, and moonlighted announcing UMass basketball games. 

Levine left consultant aspirations behind after graduation to join radio station WHMP AM/FM in Northampton, Mass. “Radio where grass grows tall!” he says in his radio voice. His three years as a radio journalist mixed roles of afternoon news anchor and night editor. Still on the airwaves, Levine is in his second season sharing broadcast duties for some of the UVM men’s and women’s basketball games, on 96.7 The Zone and WVMT.

From radio, Levine moved to doing marketing and promotions for the Chicago Bulls. He then joined the NBA for nearly two decades as an executive involved in a variety of marketing, event, minor league and international development functions. 

During his NBA years, Levine and Cindy called places like Manhattan, Florida and Hong Kong home. “It was a phenomenal chapter,” he says. “I was fortunate to be around brilliant people who helped me develop a skill set that allowed me to be successful during my time with the league.”

But world events brought a change of heart for Levine. “I always took social responsibility seriously,” he says, “but after September 11, I knew I wanted to change my focus to nonprofit work and come home to New England.” 

photoIn 2006, the chapter trained more than 10,000 people in lifesaving, CPR and first aid. Jennifer Russell is community preparedness specialist.

Levine had started visiting Vermont in 1974 because his college roommate’s brother was attending UVM. “I fell in love with the place the first time I came up here,” he says. Another connect was Cindy’s grandmother, who was from Waitsfield. They moved here two years ago, when Levine joined the chapter.

Levine’s combination of business skills and community-mindedness meshes well with his work at Red Cross. “Rob is conscientious about the chapter’s mission and knows how to move it forward,” says Chris Jarvis, corporate banking officer at Merchants Bank and seven-year former Red Cross chapter board member. “He jumped in and led the charge for us, and is a tireless advocate of finding ways to improve systems if they’re not working.”

Jarvis calls Levine “the round peg/square hole guy. At first glance you wouldn’t think someone with his NBA background would be a natural in a nonprofit role. But he’s a charismatic guy with a great sense of humor and insight. People are drawn in by him, which helps put the Red Cross out there in the community. He’s fulfilled his mission and then some.” 

Levine sees his role this way. “It all boils down to a communications job. I was brought in to help the Red Cross tell their story and help people understand what we do, how we do it, and how we’re here to support them,” he says.

“We’re focused on getting educational materials out in the community so people know how to prepare for any kind of emergency — from fire safety to winter preparedness. We do what a marketer would do, but from an educational perspective.”

The chapter is in year two of its three-year strategic plan jointly developed by chapter employees, board members and volunteers. 

“Our business challenge has been to build capacity, invest in our programs and engage the public in fund raising,” says Levine. “We have to be responsible stewards of the dollars we receive. That means seeking greater efficiencies, using good business operating systems and finding new ways to tackle challenges.”

Inroads toward chapter goals have meant a 30 percent increase of service unit delivery over the last 24 months. “We’ve become leaner and increased our capacity to serve,” says Levine.

Technology plays a role here, too. Disaster victims are given a client assistance card, similar to a debit card, paid for by donation dollars. This method lets people buy what they require to meet their own, specific needs. “We can get food and shelter as fast as possible to people who need it,” Levine says, “and this electronic transfer method gives us financial tracking and record-keeping capabilities so we know how money flows and where we can improve.”

Other technology boosts are online disaster training classes and financial reporting tools. The chapter continually monitors a variety of emergency frequencies for fire, flood, storm or any other emergency requiring Red Cross help. “We have certain uncertainty,” Levine says. “On any given morning, we don’t know what we can expect.” 

Even with uncertainty, Levine professes, “This is exactly where I want to be, and it’s an immensely rewarding role. I’d rather take business trips to St. Johnsbury or Newport than across the country.” When pressed, he admits, “If I weren’t doing this, I’d be winning millions in the PGA tour and doing good with the money — so two dreams realized there — but since the PGA has an unfair standard of performance-based results, there’s no danger of my doing that!”

Turning a bit more serious, Levine says, “There are two kinds of days that are the most satisfying: When there are more volunteers than paid staff working, and when we’re using our capacity to really help folks.” 

Spoken like a man whose been preparing for this job all his life. •