Remember how in tough situations people say to “look for the helpers” ? Well, when you look for the helpers, you know who you also see? Spartans.
Spartans are helpers throughout the state, the nation, the world. And one of those crucial helpers is Miltia Grady-Wheatley, now director of the Red Cross Northeastern North Carolina Chapter.
Grady-Wheatley graduated from UNC Greensboro in 1997 with bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in psychology. She has twenty years of nonprofit experience in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In her new position, she is the senior Red Cross staff member serving the communities of Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Edgecombe, Gates, Greene, Halifax, Hertford, Hyde, Martin, Nash, Northampton, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Pitt, Tyrrell, Washington and Wilson Counties.
What is it like to be in your current position?
“It is truly awesome to say that I’m a part of one of the largest disaster organizations and humanitarian organizations, not only in the nation, but worldwide. We touch your local neighbor, who may have a fire, and then situations like in Ukraine and other international crises and things of that nature. The thing that I’m most proud of right now, or that I find most informative, is that people typically look at the Red Cross and think it’s just ‘blood and flood.’ That’s not actually the case, because we have so many other service lines. We do services to the armed forces, we offer emotional care, we do first aid, and we do preparedness.
When people think of us, they typically think ‘national, big, humongous.’ But it’s actually very localized. Our funds are in our chapters. For me, in eastern North Carolina, it goes to serve the 21 counties that I’m responsible for. Anything that I raise, it stays here – it stays at home. So, to me, that’s important – to be able to go to my local school or a place of worship, or first responders’ center and develop relationships. When people are in need, I’m able to reach out and say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ It’s how we make an impact in our communities, and I’m a community driven person. With volunteer efforts, it can be from the smallest thing to the largest thing, but all of it makes an impact – if it’s donating blood or showing up to be the person who hands out cookies when people donate blood. That’s the thing that I’m most excited about and what I continue to learn. Being surrounded by a great team is important to me.
I have eastern North Carolina, Pitt County all the way to Dare County, Hyde county, Elizabeth City. We are prone to floods, storms, things of that nature. And June marked the beginning of hurricane season, so we’re doing a lot of hurricane preparedness, working with youth, as well as with local organizations like churches, civic groups, and even local businesses. We also have a program called ‘Ready Rating,’ which is geared towards the mom-and-pop organizations. It’s a free program offered by the Red Cross that helps businesses, schools and organizations become prepared for disasters and other emergencies. Usually, we think about the immediate needs, but if you’re a business owner, you need to know how you’re going to be ready if your doors open back up, or can you survive some number of days without those doors opening up? We offer courses like that. We do a huge program I love which works with the kids. It’s called our ‘Pedro and Pillowcase Program.’ And that’s just preparedness for our children. It’s broken down to their level. They have an understanding that anything you can fit in this pillowcase is what’s going with you. We give the kids a pillowcase and they color it. We tell them, ‘This is for those things that are the most important things to you, or that you think that you may need if you have to leave your home in the moments of disaster.’
The American Red Cross is one of the only organizations that can reach out to members of the military when they’ve been deployed and there is an emergency back at home. For example, if there’s a loved one who is getting ready to give birth or someone who’s in the hospital, we have the opportunity to reach out to their command center to get that message to them. And should it be determined that they are approved for leave to come back to the emergency, the American Red Cross will make sure that that individual service member gets back. We work with our veterans, and not just the servicemember, but their families as well. Another key component, especially in this area, because we are disaster prone, is our quick spiritual care, and it is non denominational. Because when you’ve gone through something, when you’ve watched your house flood, or your whole neighborhood just disappeared because of a disaster, just being able to sit and to talk to someone is sometimes what’s needed, just to sit beside someone or hug someone while you’re processing. Those are things that we offer. There are so many things that we do within the American Red Cross. We have a whole nursing program where we go out during disasters and provide that type of care as well. So, it is impactful to be able to see how sometimes, behind the scenes, you change people’s lives, and that’s important to me.”
What was your experience on UNCG’s campus like?
“My experience on campus was nothing short of life-changing. And it has really formed me into who I am today. So, I appreciate all of my time there, and Greensboro was really amazing.
I actually transferred from Appalachian State to UNC Greensboro but it was still a little bit daunting. So to be able to go from living up in the mountains to experiencing so much and Greensboro and the surrounding areas. It was more like being back in a Metro City.
My first and lasting impression is the rock that was right outside the dorm. I remember that. And I remember thinking, Okay, I’m closer to home. And as the days passed, I started to get more acquainted with the people that were in a dorm that I was in. It was just a really good experience, the program itself, the professors, and just the overall environment.”
What did you study?
“I’ve focused on the overall practice of understanding how society and groups work. I’ve always had an interest in that. But it wasn’t until I shifted from studying education that I realized, ‘Hey, this is actually a whole study of just understanding how our world works.’ And everybody has a different understanding. But there have to be – I don’t want to say ‘rules,’ but – ‘guidelines,’ as how we function in order to make sure that we are a successful society.
One of my final projects was about Rastafarianism and the impact that it had on the society in Jamaica. It was fascinating. And it’s funny now, because I was watching a documentary the other day saying how Rastafarianism was specific to Jamaica, but now, certain principles and aspects of it have transitioned via YouTube to other cultures and other places.”
How did your career progress after you graduated?
After graduation I left North Carolina and moved to Atlanta, and then to south Florida to pursue a master’s degree. My first professional job was a mental health specialist at a facility in Atlanta, I think due to the fact that I had a degree in sociology. When you graduate in the liberal arts, you have an opportunity to test things out to see what it is that you want to do. So, I started to pursue my master’s degree in mental health, but then I left that because I realized I wanted to look at groups, how we operate and how we function. Everybody has a purpose, and I realized my purpose is being a champion for and assisting those who may be less fortunate. So, I had to re-shift my purpose to figure out what it was that I wanted to do. Over the past 20 years, I’ve tried a lot of hats in nonprofit, but I am where I want to be right now as an executive director, and all of that started with a degree and being open minded in seeing how people and groups work.”
Have you been back to campus much?
“One of my best memories in recent past years is revisiting the campus with my college roommate. And she and I both had our daughters with us. So, we gave them a tour of the campus. And for us, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is this?’ So much has changed, but to be able to share that experience with our kids was so impactful. And then that led to the conversation of higher education, the importance of why you want to study beyond high school, whether it’s a trade or you know, you go to a four-year university, you want to educate yourself. And to see the girls look so excited, like ‘My mom went here!’ And in my living room right now is a picture in front of one of the UNCG signs with all of the girls sitting on it, which is funny now, because they’re so much bigger now. But to see them at that age, and how impressionable they were, is great. And the fact that they took it all in – that has to be one of the best experiences that I’ve had. Because I got to say, ‘You know, mommy went here.’ And there were the things that we did, and we talked about the cafeteria and the line at Chick-fil-A, which looks completely different now than when we were there. But just being able to open the door and their little minds to think about the possibility of because for them it was like ‘Oh, these are such big buildings.’ You know – bright and shiny – but the impact of the bright and shiny is more than just that, so that was great.”
What else would you like to add about your career, your life’s journey?
“At almost eight months here in my new position as executive director, I really enjoy knowing that I am the first Black female executive director in this region. That’s exciting to me. And I know that I could not have done that with all of the support of people that I’ve met in the past and along the way on my journey. Being exposed to so many things has helped me to become who I am. So, I’m completely appreciative of that. And, I have to get my one plug in for the American Red Cross: We’re always looking for people that want to donate their time, talent, or treasure. I always tell people ‘Get to know us before you need us.’ It’s really important. And in people’s moments of despair, they’ll see one of those vans pull up with the Red Cross symbol on it, so that you know that your neighbors, your businesses, and community partners are there to serve you. We are one of the largest volunteer organizations in the world. So, we couldn’t do it without the power of our volunteers. And I would not have learned how to reach out to volunteers without the studies and the people that I met at UNCG. So, I guess it’s all a full circle.”
Study sociology at UNCG
Sociology provides for a multidimensional understanding of an unlimited number of subjects in society including crime, social & criminal justice, family, gender, race & ethnicity, class, natural and man-made disasters, music, social inequality, housing & communities, immigration, the environment, globalization, social movements and education.
Story and interview by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Miltia Grady-Wheatley