Baird Learns Job Fast

May 20, 2002
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HOLLAND — Her first day on the job was a breeze.

Getting to work Sept. 10, Karin Baird found a clean, quiet and peaceful office and set to work learning the ropes and getting to know her co-workers. She knew right away she was going to enjoy her new job as executive director of the Ottawa County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Then came Sept. 11. Shortly after 9 a.m., as Baird began a staff meeting, a volunteer hurried into the room and told them of the horror that was unfolding at the World Trade Center in New York City.

Within minutes, the telephone started ringing off the hook — as many as 80 to 100 calls an hour — as people called the local Red Cross office to ask where they could donate blood or where they could send a donation.

“I didn’t have time to think,” Baird, an experienced administrator of nonprofit organizations who worked for the Red Cross years ago following college, said of Sept. 11.

Her experience, which she calls a “tremendous blessing,” enabled the Ottawa County Red Cross to move quickly into what became a sustained disaster-relief mode, arranging for 30 volunteers who could help handle the heavy volume of daily phone calls and organize the local chapter’s response to the disaster.

In the coming weeks, individuals donated more than $300,000 to the local chapter for the American Red Cross’ Liberty Fund, as well as $2 million in corporate gifts given by two large Holland-area employers. All of the proceeds were forwarded to the national organization.

Now, with the telephones no longer ringing constantly, Baird is seeing increased requests to speak to various community and civic organizations about the Red Cross and its response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

At the same time, she’s finally beginning to get to work on her first goal: Rebuilding an organization that serves thousands of people a year and is struggling with dwindling financial support locally.

“All of those strings I was supposed to grab onto when I came here, I had to let go,” Baird said as she spoke of the chapter’s needs, which includes replacing aging computer and telecommunications equipment.

Baird’s position with the Ottawa County Red Cross chapter is the latest stop in a varied professional career that has seen her work in nonprofit administration, as a college instructor, a home remodeling consultant and selling real estate. The mother of three grown children, she’s also been quite active as a volunteer in the communities in which she’s lived.

The Red Cross opening allowed Baird, who moved to the Holland area about 18 months ago into a summer home her parents owned in Macatawa, to return to the work she loved the most. The desire to run an organization that serves people in need and her involvement in the community stem from her upbringing.

She recalls how her parents were always volunteering in the southern Ohio community where she grew up. They helped to create public parks, provided support for needy families, and sponsored gifted students who couldn’t afford college, to name just a few of the initiatives that set the example for Baird to follow.

“There was that giving and caring spirit. Growing up that way, I couldn’t work in any other environment,” Baird said. “They gave so much.”

Baird’s first experience with the Red Cross came following her 1965 graduation from Michigan State University. She worked for the Red Cross in Madison, Wis., for two years as director of public information before moving to Washington, D.C., to work at the organization’s national headquarters.

She spent most of her career in the Chicago area, including a stint as executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Chicago district office. In 1999, following the death of her mother, Baird decided she needed to make a change and leave “the Chicago rat race,” even as she continued her doctoral studies. She settled into her parents’ former summer home.

Baird secured part-time work at Evergreen Commons Senior Center as a program coordinator. She found herself looking for work again when the position, which had become full time, was eliminated.

She sought out the vacant Red Cross position last summer, seeing it as a good opportunity to reconnect with an organization she had served many years ago.

“I just had such a wonderful experience when I was working for them,” Baird said.

With the initial response to Sept. 11 over, Baird is now focusing on catching up on the work she had to set aside. She is also beginning to move the chapter into a period of self-examination that for the next six to 12 months will focus on “every piece of the organization.”

The Ottawa County Red Cross, with an annual budget that fell this year to about $400,000, down from its usual range of $500,000, is struggling financially, she said. Shoring up financial support in the community by explaining what the chapter does and the myriad of services it provides is an ongoing project.

“We have to get our house in order,” Baird said of the self-examination ahead. “What’s working, what’s not working, how can it be better?

“Conservatively, I’d say it’s going to be two years before we’re getting things in order,” she said.

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