If there is time in the day to lend a helping hand, Irene Iverson will do it. A member of two GFWC clubs and recent honoree of the One OC Spirit of Volunteerism Award for 2014, Irene has been an active leader in her community since she joined the Red Cross as a volunteer at 15. The story behind her love for the Red Cross, and how that shaped her ideals on giving back to her community is fascinating, and one we’ll let Irene tell below.
The Red Cross has had a profound impact on your life from a very young age. Can you share that story?
I was born in Berlin, Germany, at the start of WWII, and in 1945, my dad, who was a soldier, was taken in Prague and when he didn’t return, we figured he was dead. Two years later, we got a letter from the Red Cross that he had been located in Siberia as a POW. I had no idea that the Red Cross even did such a thing! We were able to write to my dad until he was released in 1948.
That year we wrote to him but only on postcards because the Soviets wanted to know what was written. We would send pictures by sewing the pictures onto the postcards. It didn’t leave much room for writing, but at least we were communicating with him. After my dad came back in 1948, he participated in the Berlin Airlift. Americans could fly into an airport by a certain route and deliver food to us in Berlin. My dad worked there and unpacked those planes. He lived to be 77, which is remarkable considering what he had been through. I’m very thankful to the Red Cross.
And how did your relationship with the Red Cross continue?
When I was 16, in high school in California, I heard about a junior Red Cross chapter, and I thought, “Here is a way for me to pay back.” I joined, became president, and I worked downtown doing filing and organizing. That’s how I got started.
I raised my family, and then in 1985, after the kids were graduated, I learned that you could work in the donor room of the blood drive and organize some volunteer work for fundraising special events. I helped the Red Cross with whatever I could. I’ve been in the donor room at least once a month for 34 years.
You emigrated to California shortly after the war, in 1950. Do you recall your family’s decision to come to America?
Actually, I came to the U.S. by myself when I was 11. This is another long story! My mother was born in the United States, but lived almost her entire life in Germany. My grandparents wanted to get married, but their parents forbade it, so my grandmother’s parents came to the United States to get my grandmother away from her boyfriend, but he stowed away on the ship over from Europe. They got to the U.S. and got married and had my mom in 1913. In 1914, they returned to Germany to show off the baby, my mother, but WWI broke out and they couldn’t return to the U.S. because they were German and now the enemy. My mother lived in Germany all her life except in her first year in the U.S.
So your mother was a U.S. citizen.
Yes. In 1945, there was a vote in Berlin, just like they had in Ukraine recently, and they wanted to know, did you want the Americans to be in here or did you want the Russians to be here? My mother thought that was very important, but when she went to vote, she lost her U.S. citizenship. She didn’t even know she had US citizenship! I was born in 1939 when she still had her citizenship. That made me an American citizen.
While my parents were waiting for a visa to emigrate to the U.S., they sold all their possessions and lived in churches. They didn’t want me to have to live like that, so they sent me to live with my aunt and uncle, who had already been sponsored here. I was reunited with them 18 months later.
You make long-lasting friends through GFWC. I have friends from the beginning who are still my friends. Not only that, they’re my best friends.
How was it being essentially alone in a new country at 11?
You think about it, an 11 year old, coming to the US by herself – I wouldn’t do that to my kid! But it worked out well. My uncle made sure that we had a house that he rented for us, and my dad had a job and he went to work the next day. I of course went to school the day after I arrived. I didn’t know any English so I attended kindergarten for three months and I learned what a house was, what a tree was, what colors were. Then went to first grade for three months, then second grade for three months, until I was in fifth grade were I belonged. There was no bilingual teacher helping me like they have these days.
Was that difficult for you?
People were really nice. They collected clothes for me, because I didn’t have American clothes. There was a local television program called Queen For a Day, that my neighbors had tickets for and I was elected to be on the program. On the show, I asked for a sewing machine for my mom to make clothes, and I won. I was a heavily accented queen for a day!
Did that generosity help shape your idea of giving back?
Definitely. I appreciated being in the U.S. and I am a big fan of recycling. I don’t throw anything away. It’s just the way I was brought up. I have been the conservation chairman in my club and on the state level too. I tell people “all these things could be used, somebody needs it somewhere.” It’s about appreciating what you have, because I know what it’s like not to have it.
When did you first hear about GFWC? Why did you join?
My neighbor wanted me to join. Right away, the people were very friendly. I like the fact that if you band together with other people, you can do so much for the community. By yourself, you can do a little. But you can do so much more with others. We were a brand new club in the 1970s and the club got the first ambulance for the city. Our club started the first 5,000 blue dots (indicating where fire hydrants are located) for the city when the idea first came along.
What about teaching inspired your 38-year teaching career?
I decided to be a teacher when I was five years old. When I was in Germany I had a bad teacher, and I thought, “I could do a better job than this, I am going to be a teacher”, and I never changed my mind. When I came to Irvine they needed someone to work with special education, so I volunteered and then was hired. I really worked with mainstreaming the children into the classroom. For the past several years, my club has given a scholarship away to a high school student. One year one of my former special needs students received the scholarship. He had really progressed from second grade to high school. That was really satisfying to see that happen.
You also volunteer and tutor?
Yes, I volunteer in the classroom and we do a lot of things for schools. We help them with the book fair and holiday boutiques and next week we are going to do inventory on the library and we do our box tops and labels for education. Education is a big thing for our small club.
How do you find the energy?
I still clean my own house and do my own laundry, but I always have to be busy. My favorite thing to do now is Meals on Wheels. I do that every Monday. To me, that is the most satisfying. Those people are so happy to see you and they really need you.
If there is someone who says they need help with something and I have time to do it—I do it. With every new experience you really gain so much for yourself. You find out new things, you have new adventures. To me, it’s almost selfish to do it, because I get so much out of helping. I enjoy it very much. I call myself a professional volunteer. I do more volunteering than I do anything else.
What makes a good leader? How has GFWC enhanced your leadership skills?
To be a leader you have to be a good listener, flexible, positive, and understanding. I seem to be able to do that. I don’t know where it comes from but I enjoy leading people and showing them the best way to do things and get things done—I’m very organized and that helps a lot.
How did you get involved with being a Rose Bowl Parade decorator?
I am a Lutheran, and we have a float in the parade every year. I’m a part of the ‘petal pushers’ who decorate not only our floats but 30 others. The people pay us to decorate their floats, and in turn that pays for our float. There are thousands of petal pushers who come from all over the country who decorate all the floats. We have special t-shirts every year. I got involved with them in 1984 and have done it every year.
What would you say is the most rewarding part about being a GFWC Clubwoman for you?
I would say friendship and being able to do for others as a group. You make long-lasting friends through GFWC. I have friends from the beginning who are still my friends. Not only that, they’re my best friends.
Karen Griggsby may be new to GFWC, but her impact is already being felt.
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