Nonprofit Team Rubicon innovates to serve the American people during COVID-19 pandemic
By Art delaCruz, President and COO of Team Rubicon
Team Rubicon is an organization dedicated to mission. We are a national non-profit disaster response organization that serves communities affected by disasters and humanitarian crises by leveraging the skills and experiences of military veterans. Over 10 years of existence, our 135,000 volunteers have served communities across the nation and in many parts of the world that were overwhelmed by floods, tornadoes, fires, hurricanes, blizzards, and typhoons. Daily our volunteers, known as Greyshirts, raise their hands to serve people on their worst days. This year, we had to find a way to do so in the midst of a pandemic.
As the President and COO of Team Rubicon, I have the honor and responsibility of coordinating and executing a strategy that allows us to meet our mission–this time in a COVID environment. It wouldn’t be easy, I knew, but there was no alternative. We knew there would be disaster survivors in America in 2020, and we knew they could not be forgotten.
Pandemic Changes Playing Field for Disaster Relief
Like many, 2020 has tested our organization. Tornadoes, derechos in the Midwest, a record year for tropical storms and hurricanes, and societal needs amplified and exacerbated by COVID-19 are overwhelming communities across the country.
Before COVID-19, our volunteers were able to anticipate the seasonality of disasters and ready themselves for likely scenarios. We could plan for the flooding associated with the spring melt, the likelihood of tornadoes as spring arrived, the arrival of the fire and hurricane season as we passed the peak of summer. But a pandemic caused by a virus that was spreading rapidly and permeating every aspect of life across the world was new territory and one that would upend every plan we’d had before it arrived.
As an organization that excels at moving military veterans, emergency responders, and dauntless civilians into disaster zones—massing them in closely-knit teams that deploy into the roughest conditions with minimal support, and allowing them to deliver services with stringent standards, training, and velocity—we found ourselves in new terrain. To protect the communities we serve, the communities we return to, and our volunteers themselves, we would have to determine everything from who we would deploy to how we would house and feed those we did without transmitting the virus. We had to decide whether or not we had enough Protective Personal Equipment (PPE) to for our missions, and whether or not we should donate the critical N95 respirators we had in stock, which allow us to work in flooded and moldy homes, to healthcare providers instead. These were just a few of the questions we had to answer.
Yet even as the nation began to shelter in place disaster season began to kick in and “get to yes” became a battle cry within the organization. We began plotting how to position for continued delivery of services while also preparing to meet emergent needs caused by, or as a result of, COVID-19. We knew we would have Americans facing hunger and suffering health concerns because of COVID-19, and that people would lose their homes and places of shelter during the pandemic due to natural disasters certain to come.
We also knew we had a volunteer base with the unparalleled skills to meet these needs; a unique group of people who would make it possible for us to transition into an organization that could serve not only survivors of disasters and humanitarian crises on their worst days, but also serve Americans suffering the effects of the coronavirus in multitude ways.
A Disaster Relief Organization Built to Serve
As is true in most organizations, people are Team Rubicon’s most important asset and the source of its competitive advantage. At 135,000 volunteers strong, our ranks are comprised of approximately 70% veterans. Veterans, we believe, are uniquely suited to serve in the uncertain and often dynamic situations to which our organization responds. Veterans are adept at coming together with other veterans and civilians and quickly forming a team. Veterans value teamwork, are skilled at helping a larger entity succeed, and know how to work together to accomplish a mission. With veterans, there is an understanding that the most important obligation is to never fail the man or woman next to you in order for the whole to succeed.
Veterans also understand that being able to follow orders—and when in a position of leadership, being able to provide clear direction and delegation—is a critical component for success. They are comfortable switching between leadership and executer roles as is necessary based on each unique situation. A common saying amongst the ranks is “learn your job, teach your job, learn your next job.” This mantra, born out of the possibility of attrition on the battlefield, ensures depth of skills and an understanding that one must be ready to jump in as required. “That’s not my job” are words rarely spoken by those in uniform. Having such a force as our backbone is critical to doing everything from deciding which neighborhood we might serve first to clearing a route through tornado debris.
Veterans are also comfortable and perform well in ambiguous situations—and ambiguity is a constant in disasters. Their military experience enhances their ability to act with incomplete information, ensuring progress, not paralysis, whether that’s on the battlefield or in a town just devastated by a derecho. Veterans excel at performing under stress and dealing with tight schedules, austerity of resources, and the need to decide and act quickly. As anyone who has ever been through a hurricane knows, stress and constrained resources—from clean water to tarps—are constants in the early days after a disaster.
Finally, and most importantly, is the fact that veterans come from an all-volunteer force. They have already demonstrated a bias to serve. They are predisposed to act to help those in need and are intent on service to society and country. Veterans gravitate towards the simplicity of the Team Rubicon mission and our clarity of purpose to help people on their worst day is demonstrated as they sacrifice their personal time for the benefit of others. And in giving, they receive. There is richness to the veteran in knowing that in serving, they are putting community before self. And in that many find reward and satisfaction.
As for the 30% of volunteers who are not veterans—many coming from backgrounds in firefighting, medical professions, or law enforcement—they bring the same attributes and desires to their service with Team Rubicon. Regardless of whether they are veteran or civilian, our Greyshirts unite, embrace the culture, and kick disasters in the teeth. Their uniform is a grey shirt; their bond is a mission to help.
Implementing Safety Protocols in Order to Serve
Perhaps it is knowing the passion of our volunteers and the unique strengths and capabilities they possess that helped us get to yes and back into the field during the pandemic.
The first step in our transition to the COVID environment was, and remains, a commitment to safety. The focus is threefold: ensure our volunteers are safe, ensure the communities we serve are safe, and ensure the communities our volunteers return to are safe.
Already in March we had volunteers serving Tennessee communities hit by tornadoes. In coordination with our chief medical officer, at high-risk volunteers (those 65 and over) who were deployed were immediately sent home. It was a hard decision and one that may who were deployed begrudgingly accepted. We then put measures in place to minimize the possibility of transmission. We set protocols in place to ensure that those who remained would be able to adhere to social distancing guidelines, wear the appropriate PPE, and self-monitor for symptoms. The actions were swift and in-depth, covering everything from where and how people slept, to the process for the morning check-ins to the number of people that could be in the same car.
Then, we began our sprint to meet the needs of communities across the country in an effective, impactful, and safe manner. In this new normal, where the virus is an ever-present risk, every operation is a COVID operation. We had to determine how to operate in that environment within acceptable risk. To get to yes, we would minimize risk by conferring with experts and developing the best processes then ensuring they were understood and executed in the field. Leadership accepted that risk could not be eliminated, but there were many elements within our control, and we began implementing the processes that would allow us to serve across the U.S. while minimizing risk. We completed our first iteration of what became our COVID-19 Operations Guide in three days.
Same Mission, New Threat, Never Ending Disasters
While we continued delivering our traditional post-disaster services in the Southeast, it quickly became apparent that COVID was creating disaster-like needs beyond those typically produced by Mother Nature. Hospitals in New York City and across the country were strained, food insecurity and reliance on food banks grew as livelihoods and income were suppressed by the quarantine, and testing required coordinators and organizers.
Knowing all of this, and knowing the unique skills and expertise of our volunteers, Team Rubicon pivoted to also meet emergent needs resulting from COVID. The most notable additions launched along two new lifelines: health and medicine and food security. Neither had previously been in our strategic plan to execute domestically. But need was growing on a daily basis, so we committed to serving in these areas.
Food insecurity was one of the first missions we flexed to meet. We partnered with Feeding America and its more than 200 affiliated food banks. In a first-of-its-kind operation for us, we mobilized our veterans to help fill the wide volunteer gaps that had been created when so many 65-and-over volunteers were unable to due to risk. Through the partnership, Feeding America shares Team Rubicon’s online request for assistance form with its member food banks. Team Rubicon then provides the manpower, experience, and know-how to keep those food banks operating effectively. Greyshirts have packaged food for distribution, delivered meals to the homebound, coordinated logistics, organized fellow volunteers, and conducted warehouse management. To date, our Greyshirts have packaged more than 8.63 million meals and delivered nearly 40 million pounds of food in cities across the U.S.
Meanwhile, health and medical needs were strained across the country as cases of the coronavirus rapidly spread, taxing hospital systems, healthcare providers, and community responders. In June of 2018, Team Rubicon became the first NGO in the U.S. to be certified by the World Health Organization as an Emergency Medical Team Type 1. It was a certification we would take with us into every international mission. We hadn’t, however, anticipated using it domestically as there is already strong capacity and care available in our U.S. health systems.
Yet as communities responded to or anticipated a wave of cases requiring care, and with intensive care units operating at maximum capacity, we were mobilized into action. In April, our Greyshirts helped transform the Santa Clara Convention Center into a medical field hospital which would house overflow for the major hospital systems of Silicon Valley. Our mission was to deliver care to recovering coronavirus patients before they returned home. For the Santa Clara hospital system, it served as a critical lifeline, a resource that allows them to focus attention on—and free up beds for—people in need of the most critical care.
A similar call to action was answered at the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the U.S., and a community suffering among the highest coronavirus caseloads in the U.S. There, Team Rubicon Greyshirts—many who had served as nurses, medics, and doctors in the U.S. military—stood alongside health care providers from Indian Health Services as medical providers and first responders, augmenting their hospitals and emergency medical teams over three months.
We also utilized the unique skills of our volunteers to stand up medical testing sites, first in Charlotte, NC, and then in conjunction with Verily across California. Meanwhile, our Greyshirts also ran PPE collection and distribution sites across the nation.
Responding to Hurricanes in the Middle of the Pandemic
By late August, Team Rubicon began applying all of the knowledge earned in this COVID environment to better provide the traditional kinds of disaster relief services we are so adept at. As an augment to our COVID-19 Operations Guide, we put in newer measures that would enable us to select, train, and deploy volunteers from across the country to an operation that would span months. The areas of flight and ground transportation protocols as well as lodging requirements were codified specifically through the lens of the expected environment in order to allow operations. In August and September Team Rubicon volunteers began deploying in response to Hurricanes Laura and Sally on the Gulf Coast. The operations are ongoing even if the challenge of helping the survivors who have been impacted by the flooding, wind damage, and infrastructure in geographic areas with high COVID rates and community spread is daunting.
It is now October and the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. rages on. Meanwhile, historic disasters have been slamming the nation. For Team Rubicon, we realized early on that we could not sit idly by; we must help. In the past nine months we have launched 325 COVID–related operations and 39 core operations. During this time, we facilitated more than 80,000 COVID-19 tests, delivered more than 40 million pounds of food in cities across the U.S., and assisted more than 1,100 survivors of disasters including tornadoes, derechos, and hurricanes.
All of this has been achieved by volunteers. It is largely thanks to the unique skills and expertise of our volunteers—the majority of them veterans—that we have been allowed to act and serve the American people in this time of unparalleled crises.