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No obstacle too big to stop this Red Cross employee
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Sara O'Brien
February 26, 2007

Born prematurely and blind, Robert Thompson is not one for taking small steps as his parents, who raised him along with five other children in Arkansas, learned when he announced he was moving to California.

Most people would cringe over a work commute taking more than two-and-a-half hours each way, but Robert Thompson and his constant companion, guide dog Brutus, take it all in stride as they walk, take a bus and a BART train to work at the Red Cross every day. (Photo Credit: American Red Cross)
Most people would cringe over a work commute taking more than two-and-a-half hours each way, but Robert Thompson and his constant companion, guide dog Brutus, take it all in stride as they walk, take a bus and a BART train to work at the Red Cross every day. (Photo Credit: American Red Cross)

While he was growing up, Thompson's parents were very protective of him, sheltering him from the world. Thompson knew that he could make it on his own, but he would need to move away from home to be independent.

“My mom pretty near had a stroke,” he said, but they accepted his decision.

After completing school, Thompson worked for a law publisher in the San Francisco, transcribing and editing books, for 20 years. When the publishing company decided to move its headquarters from the pricey Bay Area to Minneapolis, he chose not to relocate and move from his home in Novato, Calif.

Thompson didn’t think it would be a problem to find a new job; after all, it had been easy enough to find his current publishing position. Things had changed though, and Thompson said he spent five years sending out resumes to every business in Marin County.

He was receiving job search assistance from a local rehabilitation program and, one day, he learned about a training opportunity for telephone work with the American Red Cross Blood Services. The employment service looked for the nearest Red Cross location and found the Oakland Blood Center, some thirty miles away. It would take Thompson two-and-a-half hours by foot, bus and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter train to get there, yet this did not deter him from seeking the job.

Before Thompson could be accepted for the training, he had to formally apply and be offered a job with the Red Cross in the telerecruiting department. It was pouring rain the day he made the long trip to Oakland for the interview.

“The last thing you want to do on an interview is go in with a wet smelly dog,” he said referring to his constant companion and guide dog, Brutus. Despite the wet canine aroma, Thompson was hired on the spot for a position calling blood donors to set up their appointment.

Now Thompson had to pack up and travel to South Carolina for six weeks, to receive training from the Commission for the Blind, on a special software system, which helps the blind and vision-impaired operate computers and telephone systems. After successfully completing the training program, Thompson and Brutus happily returned home, and Thompson began his new job.

A typical work day for Thompson begins each morning with a nearly one-mile walk to the bus stop to catch a 9:30 bus, then a connection to a BART train. During his long commute, Thompson listens to books on tape – mostly mysteries and medical thrillers – while Brutus lies down on the floor by his side. He finally arrives at work nearly three hours later at 12:15 p.m. Thompson then makes calls until 8:30 in the evening and starts his long, two-and-a-half hour trip home, arriving just before midnight.

“He lives all the way in Novato, taking the bus and BART, but he’s always on time,” said Telerecruiting Team Supervisor Madelyn Taylor.

It’s been nearly three years since Thompson started working for the Red Cross, and he has done well in the position.

“He has the most positive attitude of anyone I’ve seen,” said Taylor.

Thompson does get the occasional unhappy person at the other end of the phone, but he said the good days far outnumber those few bad ones.

“I’ve been here long enough to know when [a donor] is fooling around about scheduling an appointment,” he said.

Thompson said some folks will ask for a particular date but when he tries to set up a time for their donation, they start asking about other dates. Eventually Thompson knows it’s time to end these calls and he offers to call them back another time.

But, Thompson does more than just get others to donate blood. One day, after Thompson had been working for the Red Cross for about a year, he and a co-worker decided to give blood together. Although his colleague didn’t show up for her appointment, Thompson did. He said that giving blood was easy and he felt like he had done something important to help others. Since then, he’s been donating blood every 56 days, like clockwork.

“For my birthday, I’ll donate, and it will make me a two gallon donor,” he said. But, as much as Thompson does, he said that he would like to have done more. “I wish I had become a blood donor sooner.”

“We are so proud to have Robert working for us,” said Jay Winkenbach, CEO of the American Red Cross Northern California Blood Services Region. “Robert is living proof that any impairment or challenge can be overcome with a positive attitude and a willful determination to be independent. He is a role model for others.”

To learn about blood donations or to schedule an appointment to give, visit GiveLife.org or call 1-800-GIVELIFE. For more information and a list of opportunities work for the American Red Cross as a volunteer or employee, visit RedCross.org or contact your local Red Cross chapter or blood donation center.

The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.

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