From Volunteer to Vice President

Skills Learned as a Youth Volunteer Builds the Foundation for Life – Neal Denton’s Testimonial

At age 8, Neal Denton responded to his first American Red Cross disaster, a fire in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Neal’s father worked for the local chapter and was called in the middle of the night to provide assistance to the firefighters. Neal went along for the ride.

“There was water spraying and lots of smoke in the air and firefighters running around everywhere. And the chief stopped what he was doing to talk to my dad,” Neal said. “I remember thinking my dad must be pretty important.”

There were plenty of hungry and exhausted firefighters on the scene, so the father and son team drove to an all-night diner to buy burgers and sandwiches to hand out to the grateful responders. It was Neal’s first mission for the Red Cross, but far from his last. His relationship with the humanitarian organization would span nearly 40 years into the future, taking him down a variety of paths and leading him to the important positions of Vice President of Government Relations and Chief of Staff for the American Red Cross, which he holds today.

Neal says volunteering for the Red Cross as a child and later in his teens provided him with leadership skills and a view of the world he could not have gotten anywhere else. He describes his father’s dedication to the organization as “infectious.” Neal’s father, David A. Denton, Jr., who Red Cross staff members affectionately referred to as “D.A.D,” held a variety of high-level Red Cross positions across the country with the organization and took his family to each assignment. These experiences molded Neal’s life.

When the Denton family moved to the Concord, New Hampshire chapter, Neal and his brother helped their parents pack care packages to send to American soldiers in Vietnam.

“It was like an assembly line. My little brother and I would walk up and down the rows, putting in toothbrushes, razors, combs,” Neal said. “I think it was the first time I understood what my dad did, what the Red Cross did. They helped the men and women in uniform. It was a powerful and good thing. I was sold.”

Neal and his brother continued their relationship with the Red Cross when the family moved to Newark, NJ, cleaning up the grounds at the local chapter and taking first aid and swimming lessons in the inner city.

Two days after his 17th birthday, Neal donated blood for the first time with his father. Around that time, he also started his first paid job as a Red Cross certified lifeguard. As a teen volunteer, Neal assisted nurses at blood drives. Back then, regulations weren’t so stringent. “I can still remember the sensation of carrying a warm blood bag to the table to be logged,” he said.

When he was in high school, Neal attended a three-day training camp at a small college in Ohio where Red Cross student volunteers sharpened their leadership skills. He credits those trainings and the experiences he acquired as a youth volunteer with propelling him into a successful career that started on Capitol Hill and eventually led him back to the Red Cross.

“Volunteering gives you a whole new set of experiences you couldn’t get anywhere else,” he said. “It gives you a sense of community and a sense of civic duty. When you stop and do things for others and it is instilled in your upbringing, you learn to not think twice about it and continue to do it the rest of your life.”

Today, Neal not only runs the Government Relations and Public Policy Department at the Red Cross, but is also the interim chief of staff for President and CEO Mark W. Everson. He recently moved into an office on the second floor of the executive building on 17th Street near the White House, just steps away from the marble staircase that he admired as a boy. A vintage Red Cross poster that once hung in his father’s office now hangs on the wall behind his desk.

Neal remembers his roots and does what he can to nurture young interns and student volunteers, “After all, they are the present and the future of this organization,” he said. This fall, his department will send a proclamation to the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize the 90th anniversary of the American Red Cross youth services program.

He hopes to do more to encourage students to volunteer. “Those early volunteer experiences allowed me to appreciate what it takes to be a leader and put me on a path that continues to challenge me every day,” he said.

By Jenny Agee-Aldridge,
Senior Writer, Presidential Correspondence

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