Jana Sweeny, director of international communications, American Red Cross. (D.A. Peterson/For The Washington Post)

My first disaster was a single-family fire. For that family, it’s no different than a hurricane or earthquake. Their lives have been completely turned upside down. The caseworkers were arranging a hotel, getting a list of the medications they’d need. The firefighters were trying to resuscitate one of the cats, and the children were watching. The mother was trying to console them, but there were too many for her to hold. This little girl just grabbed my leg. That moment when you’re holding a 4-year-old sobbing over her dying kitten, you realize that you have an impact on someone in their very worst moment. That’s a real honor. Just because I have this patch on my arm, people trust me at their most vulnerable moments.

I’ll never forget the faces of these soldiers who were just about to go into Iraq. The day before they jumped, multiple people gave me letters they’d written to their families. They gave me the most important words they had to say to the most important people in their lives. They all survived, but I carried those letters for years as a reminder of that trust.

During big disasters, there’s always some point when I have to go sit in the stairwell and just cry for 20 minutes. At Virginia Tech, a couple of days [after the massacre], one of the families arrived, and all they needed from us was packing boxes. That’s when it hit me: They wanted to pack up their child’s dorm room and never, ever come back to that awful place.

Even at the worst of it, when you’re in the middle of real suffering, you’re seeing people at their best. Some people may think the Red Cross is this big institution, but it really is neighbors helping neighbors. When we arrived in Haiti, there were students lined up to help. These were upper-middle-class Haitians, whose university had been destroyed, volunteering to be translators. But even the smallest of things add up: giving blood, learning CPR, teaching babysitting! That’s all life-saving, volunteer work.

You can’t fulfill all the needs — that’s the hardest part. The things we provide can’t make everything right again. You want to make it all better, and you want to so badly. It just hurts to say: “Here are the things I have to offer, and I know that it’s not enough, but we’ll do what we can to make as much as we can right again.”

Of course, I still complain. I call my mom to whine. One time, when I was exhausted coming back from one disaster to fly back to some work meeting, she said: “You are so lucky. You get to see everything.” I felt anything but lucky right then. But she’s right. I see tragedy. I see sadness and destruction. But I always see the best of the people. And I get to help. I never have to sit on the sidelines and wonder if there’s anything I can do. There’s always something to do.

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.