Back Story

Tiana Gee

Executive Director, American Red Cross, Southwest Michigan Chapter

Tiana Gee has been on the job at the American Red Cross for just two years and has seen a lot — a lot of fires, a lot of work and a lot of people. Seven weeks into her new job, the area had three major fires in one week, requiring the Red Cross to open a shelter for the displaced families. Nine months after she started, the national organization reorganized and Gee was given responsibility for Red Cross operations in four additional counties, doubling her workload. And now, two years after she started, she is constantly on the go, traveling from county to county to meet with the hundreds of volunteers who keep the organization running.

The farm girl from Ithaca, Michigan, takes it all in stride. “I learned growing up on a farm that nothing comes easy and you’ve got to work hard,” the 39-year-old mother of two says. “You’ve got to put blood, sweat and tears into whatever you do.”

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

Right out of college I worked for March of Dimes for seven years, during which I had my children, so I had a lot of empathy for mothers with premature babies. I then went to the American Diabetes Association for another seven years, which I was really passionate about because my best friend passed away at age 35 of diabetes.

In 2010, I moved to Kalamazoo and was commuting to my job in Grand Rapids but finding that my kids were more involved in school and I had a bad work/life balance. I met Tim Terrentine (executive vice president of Southwest Michigan First) through my workings in Southwest Michigan, and he had called me and said, “There’s a position open at the American Red Cross, and you should apply.” But I didn’t. He called back a couple of weeks later and said, “Apply.” Three interviews later I landed the job.

What was it about the American Red Cross that attracted you?

My family’s house burned down my freshman year of college. I was in the dorms at WMU and the phone rings and my mom said, “Are you coming home this weekend?” and I said, “Well, yeah, I’m hungry.” And then she said, “You can’t. The house burned down.”

I know that feeling when you’ve lost everything, and they’re just things, but it’s a horrible feeling. While that’s what initially drew me to the Red Cross, I learned so much more about what else the Red Cross does and thought, “This would be a cool organization to work for.”

What moment has made the biggest impression on you?

I was just seven weeks on the job and we had three fires in one week. In helping one of the residents of the Holiday Hotel fire, we learned he had been paying $40 a day to live at the hotel.

This gentleman worked third shift and was a hard worker who took a taxi every day from the shelter to and from work. We sat down with him and said, “Do you understand the math of what you are paying to live (at the hotel) every month?”

It was a huge amount of his income. We worked with local agencies and found him affordable housing where he would pay $530 a month in rent. We paid his first month’s rent and deposit. When we called and told him that, he called us back three times to make sure it was real. It was like someone telling you your mortgage payment has been cut in half. Who wouldn’t love that?

I saw that we had changed the entire story of someone’s life. I saw the recovery aspect of what we do: We don’t just hand out money, say “good luck” and send them on their way. We help with recovery, to get them back on their feet, back to their jobs and contributing they way they did before the disaster. It was a moment when I was pretty proud of this organization and I knew I made the right choice.

What keeps you up at night?

Knowing that the Red Cross is 94 percent volunteer-driven and that my volunteer base is getting older. Our volunteers are very dedicated and passionate, and I worry, “Will I have a new Keith or a new Frank (two of her dedicated volunteers) when they are gone?” Will the kids today just grow up and replace them? Does it naturally happen? Because if we don’t have the volunteers, we can’t do the work.

There’s a lot of competition for volunteers. No organization is saying, “We’re good on volunteers. We don’t need volunteers.” We all need volunteers. So I put a lot of energy into those volunteer relationships. If you don’t treat them well, they can just move on to the next organization.

What do you do for fun away from work?

I have a motorcycle and love to have my knees in the wind. I just sold my bike and will be getting a new Harley-Davidson to ride in the spring. I’m sort of an adrenaline junkie. I also love the water and will take my kids to the beach every weekend in the summer.

How would you describe yourself?

I would say I’m driven, determined and loyal. When I put my mind to do something or promise someone something, I do it.

My biggest pet peeve is hearing someone say, “It’s not my job” or “It’s not in my job description.” We are all a team around here and we have to be or otherwise we are going to fail.

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