• 75°

Combs dives into Red Cross

Hannah Combs grew up volunteering, but it was her near-death on a sailing vessel that pushed her over the edge into full-time community service.

“I’ve always volunteered in one way or another,” said Combs, the new development director at the Suffolk chapter of the American Red Cross. “It’s a basic philosophy of mine, because my father was a minister. We learned early on that there’s always somebody who needs help, and we should help them.”

Combs took that philosophy into adulthood, volunteering at the Hagley Museum near her home in Delaware and working for the United Way. However, her own experience with losing nearly all that she owned gives her special empathy for the people the Red Cross helps — those who have lost everything in fires and natural disasters.

In November 2002, Combs and three friends were sailing down the East Coast to the Bahamas when they encountered a terrifying storm. After two days of being tossed in 25-foot waves, the boat’s mast broke.

“We were dead in the water,” Combs said.

Combs put out a mayday signal over the radio, and the CSX-owned container ship Discovery arrived and rescued the foursome — along with the dog, Jammer — after about two hours. The ship took them to its port in Florida, where they were safe on dry ground. But they had nothing except the foul-weather gear on their backs.

“Most people have never had to deal with a huge loss like that,” Combs said. “I can really draw on that personal experience.”

The four were helped by various Florida churches, and they wound up getting home safely. They didn’t forget to repay those who helped them — they nominated the CSX Discovery for U.S. Sailing’s Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal. The Discovery became the first commercial craft ever to receive the award.

Combs still is repaying her community. Her new position with the Suffolk chapter of the American Red Cross gives her the opportunity to do so.

“The great part, for me, is I can pay my bills while I’m helping the community,” she said. “I would help them anyway.”

Besides her work with United Way, Combs also has owned a construction company and served as a youth minister, where she tried to instill the lessons in the young people that her father did for her.

“I wanted them to see that not everybody goes to the refrigerator and there’s food to eat,” she said.

Combs called the Red Cross position “the culmination of everything that I’ve ever done.”

She plans to upgrade some of the Suffolk chapter’s fundraising efforts.

“It’s important that we concentrate on finding the major donors who can support us through the good times and the bad,” she said. “There are a lot of big businesses, particularly in northern Suffolk, that have really not been tapped.”

Combs added, though, that she is not shy of asking even individual citizens to give.

“It’s critical that we don’t miss anybody,” she said. “I have no fear of knocking on doors.”

She also plans to make the chapter’s website more interactive, revamping the annual Paint the Town Red fundraising event, and visiting churches and other organizations to promote the Suffolk chapter.

“We’ve got to get more recognition out there,” Combs said. “People need to be reminded sometimes. If they don’t know, they can’t help.”

She added that she is looking forward to meeting the folks in Suffolk and finding new Red Cross volunteers.

“There’s no way four people can do everything, so we count on our volunteers a lot,” she said.

To contact Combs, call 539-6645.