Dream Job

Dream Job

From teenage volunteer to executive, Creighton alumnus finds his calling with the Red Cross

By Rick Davis, BA’88

Jono Anzalone, BA’02, discovered what has become his lifelong passion while taking a CPR and first-aid class from the American Red Cross more than 20 years ago — as a prerequisite for a summer job as a lifeguard.

“I remember picking up a brochure about what the Red Cross did around humanitarian assistance,” Anzalone says. “And I was hooked.”

The then 15-year-old Omaha Central High School student jumped right in, and began volunteering with the local Red Cross — a practice he continued while a political science student at Creighton. He instructed water safety and first-aid courses, helped with relief efforts following flooding and assisted families whose homes were destroyed by fire.

You could say the Red Cross — and helping others — got into his blood.

After graduating from Creighton, Anzalone earned his master’s degree in economics from the University of Nebraska Omaha, while continuing to volunteer for the Red Cross.

The youngest of three children and a first-generation college student, Anzalone worked his way through school, with jobs in banking and at Charles Schwab. He did quite well as a financial advisor, and even earned an investment broker’s license.

“As great of an experience as I had working for a local bank, I knew I did not want to stay in that industry,” he says.

After Hurricane Katrina — one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in U.S. history — slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, Anzalone participated in Omaha’s efforts to assist and house evacuees.

Then as luck, or perhaps fate, would have it, in August of 2006, after he had earned his master’s degree, the Heartland Chapter of the Red Cross in Omaha was looking for a director of emergency services.

“They said, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’” Anzalone remembers, considering his potential for a lucrative career in financial services. “And I said, ‘Absolutely, I do!’”

Anzalone says he was immediately struck by the dedication and compassion of Red Cross volunteers. He particularly remembers one older Omaha couple, both active volunteers. The wife had been a licensed mental health worker, and she fielded a call at 2 a.m. from a family whose child had died.

“The family didn’t need any financial assistance. They didn’t need food or clothing. They just needed someone to listen to them,” Anzalone says. “I remember thinking, ‘These are things that volunteers wake up in the middle of the night to do, because they want to alleviate human suffering — which is our mission.’”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Anzalone says, Congress recommended that the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) do more joint planning, and he was eventually transferred to Kansas City, Missouri, to serve as a Red Cross representative at the FEMA regional office there.

Anzalone assisted in the aftermath of the Greensburg tornado in 2007. The storm, with winds estimated at more than 200 mph, virtually destroyed the small Kansas farming town. President George W. Bush flew in by helicopter to assess the damage and offer support.

“We tried to find housing solutions for a town that was completely damaged,” Anzalone says. He helped coordinate services and responses from government and nonprofit agencies, including the Red Cross.

Anzalone says he was emotionally moved not only by the extent of the devastation, but by the resilient spirit shown by the members of that community.

“It was just incredible,” he says. “On one hand, they are devastated. But you also see a community completely come together and start to envision how they are going to rebuild their community. It’s pretty darn amazing.”

In 2008, Anzalone traveled to Panama City, Panama, with the International Federation of the Red Cross, overseeing disaster relief in the English-speaking areas of the Caribbean, Belize and Suriname.

“It’s a different level of human needs,” Anzalone says of his international work. “Overseas it’s more about life-saving measures.” Without relief, for instance, those affected by a disaster might not only go hungry but could starve. “That was really eye-opening for me.”

Anzalone is one of about only 50 American Red Cross staffers and volunteers trained and preapproved to participate in international work for the Red Cross. As a member of the organization’s international roster, he travels overseas about once a year.

In 2015, he was named disaster executive for the North Central Division of the Red Cross, overseeing disaster response, preparedness and recovery for an 11-state region. He was on the ground in Louisiana for a month following the catastrophic flooding there in 2016.

Shortly following, in October 2016, he and his partner moved to Washington, D.C., as Anzalone began his current job as vice president for International Services, reporting to Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern.

“We have programs in 34 countries across the globe,” he says, “working with other Red Cross or Red Crescent societies.”

For the 38-year-old Anzalone, it continues to be a connection to serving others that enthralled him as a teenager.

“I never go to bed at night thinking, ‘Gosh, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing with my life.’”