Patty Flowers, who has led the Wisconsin arm of the American Red Cross for eight years, plans to retire in November.
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Flowers was hired in 2010 as regional chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Wisconsin, following a career that included various roles within education, health care, insurance and nonprofits.
Throughout her tenure, Flowers has overseen the emergency assistance and disaster relief organization's 2,400 volunteers and 45 paid staff members. Wisconsin's Red Cross operation includes five chapter locations and seven blood donation centers.
Flowers said highlights from her tenure have included the organization's work of preventing and responding to house fires, connecting active duty military service members with their families during times of distress and advocating for the delivery of measles vaccinations globally.
Wisconsin's Red Cross responds to about 900 incidents annually, the vast majority of which are house fires. The organization's reach extends to other areas throughout the community, including its blood donation services, CPR and babysitting trainings, and services to the armed forces.
“We really do see people at their darkest hour, whether it’s a house fire where they just lost everything or the aftermath of a tornado or floods,” she said. “Every single time, we are thanked for the little things that we’ve done; the blankets we put around them, the little kits with toothpaste, a toothbrush and a comb … There are tears and we hug, but the resiliency of the human being is amazing to me. That’s the No. 1 thing I’m going to take away from this job.”
The American Red Cross of Wisconsin also responds to natural disasters outside of the state. Last year, in the wake of the series of destructive hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, the organization deployed 350 volunteers to affected areas.
Flowers spent the month of September 2017 in Texas, serving as a liaison to elected officials and later as the leader of a mega-shelter task force. While working out of an office in Beaumont, Texas, Flowers saw the hurricane’s extreme devastation of the area.
“The office I went to had no running water,” she said. “We had a generator to keep our computers going. The entire town was out of electricity. It was like driving through a ghost town. You saw the big box stores with no one in the parking lot.”
While overseeing the organization of staff and supplies at three massive shelters, she was touched by the gratitude of the families that had been displaced.
“The hugs that I got walking through some of the shelters, I met some of the most grateful people,” she said. “They literally had nothing and they kept thanking me over and over again. It was just amazing.”
Following the organization’s massive response to the hurricanes in the fall 2017, the Red Cross briefly initiated a controversial policy change locally.
Prompted by a shortage of staff, the Red Cross announced in December it would no longer send volunteers into 10 Milwaukee ZIP codes and instead would have fire victims meet volunteers at police stations or the Red Cross’s headquarters on the city’s near west side. The policy change was met with immediate backlash, and the organization rescinded it
a week later.
Flowers said she learned important lessons about building relationships and communicating with the community.
“We should have gone out to the community ahead of time and asked them for help,” she said. “We thought we had people around the table talking it through and the process change felt right at the time, but we really should have gone to the community and talked to them more before doing something like that. That’s a great lesson learned.”
She said the incident has prompted an unintended positive outcome, as many people have stepped up to serve as volunteers and stronger relationships with the organization have been built.
“We shouldn’t have gone out and made changes to our process the way we did,” she said. “We went too fast without all the right people at the table … We were sorry we did it and we were sorry for the way we did it, but at the same time all the good things that have come from it have been really good for the community.”
Prior to joining the Red Cross, Flowers was vice president of the foundation at Children’s Hospital and Health System for eight years. Later she served briefly as interim executive director for Next Door Foundation, followed by an eight-month stint leading her father-in-law’s business in Rochester, New York after he passed away.
In retirement, Flowers said she plans to spend more time with her family, including her husband, four children and three grandchildren. The decision to close out her career this year was prompted by the recent loss of two friends to cancer.
“It made me sit back and take notice and say, gosh, life really is too short,” she said.
National Red Cross executives and the local board of directors have launched a national search for her replacement.