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St. Olaf student’s internship helps rethink disaster relief in a digital world

In 2020, in addition to enduring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans experienced more billion-dollar disasters than any other year on record. The American Red Cross (ARC) has provided volunteers in the face of natural disasters and emergencies for decades — but with the need for on-site volunteers high in a moment when the world was turning to a virtual workforce, the agency needed to find new ways to organize their system.

Noah Elbaor '23
Noah Elbaor ’23

Through an internship with the ARC, St. Olaf College student Noah Elbaor ’23 worked to help organize the data that makes it possible for 90 percent of the organization’s workforce to do this critical work virtually.

Elbaor worked with the Disaster Cycle Services, one of the four main services the ARC offers, which does disaster relief in the United States and its territories. Every community across the country is always going through one of three cycles — preparedness, response, or recovery. Elbaor worked under the Resource Mobilization and Support (RMS) Team, which deals with the response cycle, and was responsible for finding and deploying workers for a disaster relief operation.

“Say a fire breaks out. The local Red Cross chapter will create a disaster relief operation, and they’ll start requesting workers. The RMS Team is national and it works virtually. Their job is to look at the requests and find appropriate American Red Cross volunteers geographically — people who have the skills necessary to do the jobs and also live in close enough proximity to the disasters. That’s what the team does on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

During his internship, Elbaor worked on three chief projects related to worker support in the pandemic. “I wrote a report on the Virtual Assignment Staffing Team (VAST), which used to connect virtual workers to virtual supervisors, but has been evolving since the workers and supervisors started direct contact. I looked over documentation, conducted interviews, and consolidated information about the virtual volunteers, their current practices, and what the Red Cross thinks VAST should be moving forward, and consolidated that into a big report,” he says.

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The other major project Elbaor worked on was creating checklists in order to update the Red Cross’ documentation of virtual volunteers and virtual supervisors in order to keep track of their responsibilities over the course of a deployment.

“The Red Cross is very busy with disaster relief operations happening all the time, all across the country, which leaves little time for updating documentation. I found that, oftentimes, most of the documentation doesn’t reflect current practices,” he says. “I reached out to current workers and asked them about their current procedures to rectify the documentation in order to standardize the processes and procedures that the virtual workers go through before, during, and after their deployment. Most of my work on a day-to-day basis was lots of research, reading through big company documents, conducting interviews, and consolidating that information into reports.”

Elbaor also did data analysis on all Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation workers assigned in Fiscal Year 2020 through May of Fiscal Year 2021, totaling over 40,000 entries. “I used Excel to calculate the proportions of virtual versus in-person workers assigned to different jobs, the average length of virtual versus in-person assignments, and the change in these trends over the months, culminating in a presentation I gave to the RMS Team,” he says.

At the Red Cross, we saw disasters happening every day. I felt a great sense of purpose and meaning in my work — and I saw that in my colleagues, too, which made it a very positive work environment. I really enjoyed working there, and I see a potential to work in humanitarian work and nonprofit organizations.Noah Elbaor ’23

Elbaor had come to St. Olaf with his mind set on being a diplomat someday, and he took a class on international relations in his first year. “I wanted to become a diplomat because I wanted to use America’s influence in the world to solve global problems; however, I realized that a diplomat’s duty also involves taking care of the United States’ interests,” he says.

Diplomacy didn’t fuel Elbaor’s passion for building relationships and helping people directly. “I didn’t want to be limited by politics. That is what led to my interest in economic development and humanitarian work. I am interested in political science and history, but I decided to major in economics because it offers an empirical perspective of political problems in the world and enables solving sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues in a data-driven manner,” says Elbaor, who is majoring in quantitative economics.

Through the connections he made at St. Olaf and with the help of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, Elbaor found an opportunity with the Red Cross to engage in the direct service that he is so passionate about. “During our daily briefings I realized how many disasters are happening across the country due to climate change right now and how much effort is going into solving them,” he says. “While I am not directly involved with disaster relief, I do feel the pressure and the need every single day as I am doing my work, and it’s very satisfying knowing that the work that I’m doing is going to help these operations for decades.”

It’s very satisfying knowing that the work that I’m doing is going to help these operations for decades.Noah Elbaor ’23

Because Elbaor did not receive compensation from the Red Cross, he qualified for an internship grant from the Piper Center. These grants provide St. Olaf students with funding for unpaid or underpaid internships and research experiences.

In addition to the service Elbaor is doing for the national community, he is also contributing to the St. Olaf community. He received the St. Olaf Emerging Leader Award as a sophomore for demonstrating a commitment to the St. Olaf campus community through leading the St. Olaf Chapter of the Food Recovery Network and being an officer for the Social Ballroom Dance Club. Food Recovery Network is the largest student-led movement fighting food waste and working to end hunger in America. Since starting in 2015, the St. Olaf Chapter of the network has saved and distributed more than 7,000 pounds of food. Elbaor is also a recipient of the Johnson Scholarship Award for being an exceptional student in the Great Conversation program.

“During my time as a leader in my Marian Catholic High School marching band, I learned that leadership is a position of service defined by humility. I took these principles with me to my leadership positions at St. Olaf and they were essential in helping me deal with all the uncertainty and unexpected challenges of coming into leadership positions during a pandemic. Teaching solo partner dancing during COVID for Social Ballroom Dance Club was challenging, all while extending our reach and keeping members engaged. Food Recovery also had to navigate the increased restrictions and logistical challenges that come with handling food during a pandemic,” Elbaor says.

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Working with the Red Cross has helped Elbaor set plans for his future summers. “At the Red Cross, we saw disasters happening every day. I felt a great sense of purpose and meaning in my work — and I saw that in my colleagues, too, which made it a very positive work environment. I really enjoyed working there, and I see a potential to work in humanitarian work and nonprofit organizations,” he says. “With the remainder of my time at St. Olaf, I would also like to explore opportunities in foreign policy and international relations, and compare them with my experience here and use that as a reference point to move forward.”