Multimedia Journalist

‘The hardest job you’ll ever love’

Tom Shands admires the pins on his cowboy hat. An American Red Cross volunteer for 45 years, Shands is often the first on-site at a house fire from the organization or sent to organize shelters after natural disasters.
Danisha Hogue/for News Tribune

When a house catches fire in the middle of the night in Cole, Boone, Cooper or Moniteau counties, Tom Shands is one of the first called to assists families.

Without complaint, Shands, 72, gets up and puts on his red vest, lanyard and white cowboy hat — all covered in pins — and heads out to give compassion and assistance to disaster victims and new American Red Cross clients.

The Jamestown resident, known as “Cowboy Tom,” is approaching his 45th year of service with the organization.

After a disaster, Red Cross volunteers interview clients and bring comfort kits, toothbrushes and first aid. The organization provides client assistance cards for hotel stays and other basic needs to begin the transition.

Shands’ pins are like his bumper stickers, all memories from places he’s traveled — California, North Carolina, St. Joseph and Joplin pins are placed between the American flag, U.S. Navy Seabee, Cowboys for Christ and a variety of colorful Red Cross pins.

The hat, he said, helps people find him in a crowd, and it makes him about 6 feet tall.

“At first people will say, ‘Hey, cowboy,’” Shands said. “When they get to know me, it reverts to, ‘Hey, Cowboy Tom.’ They tend to be friendlier when they can associate me with something besides the Red Cross.”

Early May 23, Shands arrived at the American Red Cross shelter in Eldon after the EF-1 tornado displaced families.

As a shelter manager then night shelter manager, he remained in the community for 19 days, sleeping on-site, sharing food with victims and listening to their stories.

Meeting people during what is probably the worst times of their lives, he said, it’s important that people know there is a tomorrow after their disaster.

“Our most important job is to listen to clients and allow them to get whatever has happened out,” Shands said. “The more they talk about it, the less it’s pinned up inside them, and it’s easier for them to come to reality as to what has happened in their lives.”

In 1974, Shands worked at the Westinghouse transformer plant in Jefferson City, now ABB Inc. When the business wanted an in-house CPR instructor, he volunteered to become certified and teach classes at the factory.

By September 1974, Mary Ann Chambers, former executive director of the American Red Cross’ Capital Area Chapter, asked Shands to teach at the Jefferson City chapter. Originally teaching Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and small employee groups, he was later certified in AED training.

No stranger to hard work, Shands dedicated six years to the U.S. Navy and 20 years to the U.S. National Guard.

During the historic Flood of 1993, he “got his feet wet” assisting with national disasters.

“I was in charge of a National Guard unit down in Rhineland,” Shands said. “I was an assistant to the Red Cross shelter manager there.”

After working other disasters within the state, Shands has been certified in damage assessment and shelter manager instructing.

Volunteering comes with long hours at shelters and working with crew members from all over the world. Through this service, he said, he’s learned empathy and when to share his Christian beliefs.

His favorite part is giving hugs.

“When I do a disaster, I go in as a Red Cross volunteer, and I try to do everything I can for that client,” Shands said.

After checking off the boxes, he turns around his name tag and talks to people as a Christian.

“As a neighbor, because I just live down the street from you, I’d like to pray for you,” Shands said. “Most the time, they’ll say it’s OK. There are times when people tell me no, and I accept that. I try to live my faith, and I try to share God’s love with other people.”

When he’s not on a call, he teaches Sunday school at Salem Baptist Church in California. His wife, Judy, also volunteers at the church and accompanies him to disaster sites.

“We all have an opportunity to help others in times of disaster, like floods, tornadoes, snow and ice,” he said. “We should try to alleviate their problems.”

He remembers the words of his mentor, Steve Stacey: “He said it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love, and it’s the truth.”

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