Chris Bankhead wasn’t thinking about a career with the American Red Cross when he left the military. The retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and father of two wanted finish his degree. After enrolling in some online classes, he quickly realized that he needed more structure, separating his studies and homelife, and to establish an outside routine with purpose. Enter the Red Cross.
He began volunteering with Service to Armed Forces (SAF) in 2015, a natural fit after serving over two decades with the Marines. His duties with SAF took him all over the world, including four United States territories. Now a fulltime employee, Bankhead is a senior disaster program manager, he is working to strengthen the bond between volunteers and communities.
“We all have our different talents, and I really try to continue to encourage my guys, my managers, in how to build our localized teams to be effective,” Bankhead said. “So, we can still do all the same things I learned how to do [as a volunteer] as far as working on initiatives and empowering communities. Not only to say, ‘Hey, we, the Red Cross, is going to do it, but ‘Hey, this is how the Red Cross can help you do it,’ by bringing in partners, building rapport with emergency managers and other officials.”
Bankhead oversees the western counties of the North Texas Region, spanning the Texas Big Country and Panhandle Plains chapters, with teams in Wichita Falls, Amarillo, Abilene, Lubbock, San Angelo and Brownwood. He jokes that there are more cows than people in the area he covers. Yet, he wouldn’t be able to effectively reach people who need assistance in the distant counties without the help and humanitarian efforts of the rurally located volunteers.
During the recent winter storm in February 2022, one such volunteer, Steve Bales, worked tirelessly to help a resident in Brownwood find an overnight shelter for himself and his dogs. After a suggestion from his wife, Bales reached out to a local church who was willing to help and took in the resident and his pets. It’s this connection to community that Bankhead says is the most important for his volunteers to see.
“He’s heard how we rely on the community, but that just nailed it,” Bankhead said of Bales’ efforts. “That just drove the nail home when he was able to see it in action.”
Not only do volunteers respond to the needs of the community, but they also helped Bankhead acclimate to his role as a senior disaster program manager. According to him, the volunteers he worked with closely caused him to really think about the mission and purpose of the Red Cross. It helped him focus on empowering volunteers through the work that they do.
“I want to say that was a big point for me,” Bankhead said. “Through volunteers, I learned to be able to start understanding our mission a little bit more. That resonated with me. That was real big. … Don’t miss the opportunity to empower them because you don’t know what it is that you’re going to be able to touch.”
What began as an opportunity to get out of the house and focus on his studies — he finished his bachelor’s degree and is currently pursuing a master’s in occupational safety — turned into a second career for Bankhead. His work with the Red Cross has helped him positively impact the lives of many across the globe. Here in North Texas, he continues to foster relationships and help provide care for people in need. Still, he readily acknowledges that his work isn’t finished.
“Honestly, I think now I have the time to kind of focus on trying to make this thing bigger,” Bankhead said. “I have a thing in my head that I really want say, ‘Hey, here is the West as close to a picture-perfect way that it should be done.’ Where we are beneficial to the North Texas Region and where I can encourage people, communities, emergency managers and city officials to be able to fall into the loop of what we’re trying to do and be a good partner to them.”