Kate Forbes, the new president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is the first American ever elected to the position and only the second woman (photo by Roxanne Schorbach).

Need to find North Central Phoenix resident Kate Forbes? She’s not hard to track down. That is, if you are willing to follow her to Geneva (that’s the place in Switzerland) or any place in the world where there’s human suffering (that’s places like all over Africa, Haiti, Ukraine and Syria for starters). While she and her husband, Don, live in North Central Phoenix and have a second home in Santa Fe, the family joke is that she lives at airports. And in disaster camps around the world. And in villages and nations’ capitol buildings. And in Phoenix.

Kate, or Katherine, as some call her, is the newly elected president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). She is the first American ever elected to this position, and only the second woman to hold this position in its history. The IFRC is the world’s largest humanitarian network, with member organizations in 191 countries around the world. Their work is done by 16 million volunteers. Kate is one of them.

In war zones and in neighborhoods here in Phoenix, Red Cross and Red Crescent Society volunteers work together to alleviate human suffering. Forbes leads their work.

“I’m a volunteer, and I really respect the work of volunteers,” she says. She has more than four decades of experience volunteering with the IFRC, and even longer volunteering with the American Red Cross.

Her life of service through the Red Cross started with one meeting in Phoenix many years ago. She’s a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and was asked by a colleague to come to an American Red Cross Phoenix board meeting to lend her expertise in looking over financial statements.

“I told him I didn’t have time. I was mom to a little girl, and my husband and I were running our family electrical business,” she remembers. “My colleague said something that changed my life and the life of my family. He said ‘Kate, how can you NOT have time for the American Red Cross?’

She continued, “I heard him loud and clear. So, I went to the meeting. I was hooked. The volunteer service — the mission is to ease human suffering without bias, without politics, and that touched me deeply,” she reflects.

And that was the start of her volunteering with the Red Cross. She served as a volunteer on the board of the Phoenix chapter, and worked tirelessly to increase awareness and raise funds for the work volunteers do. And what does that work involve? Aiding those affected by disasters across the street or across the world, working with military families, reuniting those separated by armed conflict or natural disasters, teaching life-saving CPR and water safety, and collecting blood from donors and distributing it to hospitals and clinics where it is used to save the lives of trauma victims and those with cancer and blood diseases such as sickle cell.

Forbes knows how to roll up her sleeves and get the job done, regardless of whether she is reading financial statements, recruiting volunteers, feeding hungry kids, meeting with world leaders to convince them to do the right thing or reassuring worried disaster survivors. She’s likely to do it all and more in any given week. She often meets with world leaders on behalf of the Red Cross, and her engaging, sincere nature has turned many an icy meeting into a warm, productive one.

“Kate drives a hard bargain when it comes down to it,” says one of her many supporters. “Seeing her in action, advocating for easing human suffering through the Red Cross, is impressive. She can get through to even the toughest of world leaders,” he says.

Using her financial and accounting background, she has served on multiple audit committees for Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies around the world, always focusing on where Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are assisting. She works hard to ensure every bit of money raised is spent wisely, leveraging it for the best use to feed, house, and improve the safety and health of those needing help, regardless of their race, religion or political affiliation.

“The Red Cross/Red Crescent founding principles are based in neutrality, impartiality and humanitarian service,” she says. She stands in the hallway of the American Red Cross office in Phoenix and shows visitors the posters illustrating the founding principles. “We stand for all of these, and we show others, regardless of the harsh conditions they face, that they can count on the Red Cross to stand with them.”

Forbes has been honored with award after award, locally, nationally and internationally, for her selfless service. She is at home on a cot in a shelter, soothing a crying child, and sharing a moment with a tribal elder. She can throw a string of pearls around her neck, run a comb through her hair and dig a dress out of her suitcase just in time for a meeting with a head of state.

Running through an airport is nothing for her — and neither is running alongside a bus to flag down a driver, when she has stopped to help a child injured on a street in a war-torn country.

“My first priority is kids,” Forbes says. “More than half our volunteers, worldwide, are youth. They know how to work with other youth from around the world. Youth caring for and empowering other youth — it will be powerful.”

Speaking of kids, Forbes smiles as she remembers something her daughter, then in sixth grade, said when she was juggling Red Cross responsibilities with those of being a mom involved with her daughter’s class.

“The school had pizza on Fridays, and the parents volunteered to serve and clean up. My daughter said, very matter-of-factly — ‘Now mom. Think about it. What is more important? Feeding me and my friends pizza on Friday or volunteering with the American Red Cross?”

Forbes smiles even more as she remembers that day many years ago.

“My kid — she gets it.”


  • Trudy Thompson Shumaker

    Trudy Thompson Rice is a registered nurse and public affairs professional. She holds degrees in Journalism and Nursing from the University of Texas, and is licensed in Arizona as an RN. She is an officer in the Arizona Information Officers' Association, is a graduate of the FBI Citizens Academy and is past president of Phoenix International Association of Business Communicators.

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