Bullard leaving Red Cross

Nov. 27, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

After about a year and a half of leading local families through crises and spearheading efforts to prepare the community for potential emergencies, Michele Bullard is stepping down as Red Cross coordinator for Lee and Chatham counties.

The 43-year-old Bullard had been working for local nonprofits for years before her present position. She was with the United Way when disaster struck Sanford on April 16, 2011, in the form of a tornado that killed two people and caused about $100 million in damage to the community. And working with various other aid organizations in the aftermath, she said, led her to want to join the Red Cross.

“I learned I really liked the one-on-one experiences, helping people who really need it,” she said. “You’re right there. You’re their lifeline right after disaster strikes their lives.”

The Red Cross coordinator at the time, Abby Cameron, was promoted to the regional office soon after, and Bullard took her place. But Bullard’s more recent experiences have led her to find yet another calling: that of a teacher.

She’s a member of the Jonesboro Rotary Club, which visits Greenwood Elementary School regularly to tutor the kids and be mentors, Bullard said, adding: “And my daughter goes there, so it’s kind of enabled me to see her and also work with the disadvantaged kids, which I just love to do.”

Bullard volunteers at the school on top of her Rotary visits, although she said that with her daughter moving on to middle school, she’ll miss that opportunity. After thinking long and hard, she decided she wanted to commit herself fully. So after she steps down from the Red Cross on Dec. 6, she’ll start pursuing a degree in early childhood education. She said she wants to get a job at Greenwood when it’s all said and done.

“I’ll be honest, we wanted to send her to Tramway (Elementary School, a year-round public school with a lottery system for admittance), and we were devastated when she didn’t get in,” Bullard said. “So she went to Greenwood, and let me tell you, I could not be happier. It’s the most amazing school.”

Her experiences there as a volunteer, parent and mentor all led her to discover she also wants to teach, Bullard said in the Red Cross office at the Lee County Arts and Community Center on Tuesday, stopping once or twice as she teared up, talking about leaving one passion for another.

“We’re all one big family,” said Lu Esposito, a communications officer with the Triangle Region Red Cross who was visiting on Tuesday and is helping manage the transition from Bullard to the new coordinator, whoever that might be.

“There’s a bonding that happens during a disaster, and that’s probably what happened to you,” she told Bullard.

Bullard agreed: “It was a hard decision. There’s a lot of really great stuff I gave up.”

Bullard’s duties encompass everything from coordinating blood drives and first aid classes to organizing fundraisers and helping families who were the victims of house fires find temporary shelter, clothing, food and other assistance. Her role also involved lending emotional support to those same devastated families, sometimes well beyond the time it takes to get the family resituated.

Joseph Green, pastor at Try Jesus Ministries in Sanford whose house burned down last year right before Christmas, is one of those.

“We’re still friends and talk all the time,” Bullard said. “And for everything I did after the fire, he repaid it tenfold.”

But she acknowledged that dealing with 15 to 20 families a year displaced by a house fire, and sometimes mourning the loss of a loved one, can take an emotional toll. However, for other issues like blood drives or CPR classes, Bullard said local volunteers do more than enough to help keep her as stress free as possible.

“We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers,” she said. “I’m the only paid employee for Lee and Chatham counties.”

Case in point: Esposito said that even with Bullard leaving and her replacement not yet found, the local operation should continue to run smoothly. Volunteers are already signing up to help man the phones in the office and be on call in case of emergency, and she said all the blood drives and other events that have been arranged will still go on as planned.