Jarrett Barrios has run a lot of races in his life. There is only one he never got to finish.
First, let’s recall the victories. Barrios trail-blazed in politics: The former Congressman was the first openly gay, Latino man elected to the Massachusetts Senate. He worked hard on healthcare, leading the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts, one of the largest private health philanthropies in the state, during a campaign for reform that (oh, maybe you’ve heard?) served as a model for the nation. And he explored the route of LGBT advocacy as former president of GLAAD, the community’s linchpin media watchdog organization. Today he’s the CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, overseeing the state’s vital operations. Barrios has brought to each role the same indefatigable approach: keep your eye on a goal (or ten), and plod forward — with a little muscle and a lot of laser-like focus — until you reach it.
But on April 15, Barrios didn’t make it to the finish line. He was stopped just blocks away from completing his first Boston Marathon by the tragic bombings that left three dead and 264 injured. The experience was, naturally, devastating for many reasons. But ultimately, it has only spurned this out leader on in his current work: underscoring the importance of a humanitarian relief organization like the Red Cross, and filling Barrios with resolve to make the nonprofit run even better, stronger and more efficiently — like a finely tuned athlete poised for success.
“Until recently I haven’t talked publicly about it. It was a really emotional experience,” says Barrios. This marathon held especially significant meaning for him. Not only was he one of 30 runners from Team Red Cross, on his mind was his doctor’s recent discovery of an enlarged thyroid — later diagnosed as follicular cancer. (He’s been successfully treated and is healthy now.) “It was a scary time and there was a lot on my mind,” he admits, and finishing a Marathon was a bucket list item that would testify to his health. So when he was stopped six blocks from the finish line, there was first confusion and frustration. Then, as news of the reason spread, fear and anxiety: his son Javier was supposed to be waiting for him at the finish line. Thankfully, a few emails and phone calls placed from spectator cell phones delivered the news that Javier was safe and now away from the site of the devastation.
Then came the next reaction: Action. Though his legs were weary, Barrios sprang into CEO mode and immediately began coordinating the Red Cross’s Marathon efforts, which would wind up its most extensive since the Blizzard of 1978. 400 volunteers were already stationed at medical tents along the marathon route, which helped in providing initial aid to first responders and disaster response guidance to the Boston Athletic Association. But the Red Cross’s marathon-related work continued far longer and went much deeper: from coordinating larger relief services with city and state departments, to assisting affected individuals and families affected with the logistical, financial and vitally, physical and emotional health burdens suddenly foisted upon them.
But the marathon was a testament to Barrios’ leadership in another way, by testing many of the systems and processes that he had put in place since joining the Red Cross in 2011. In just the first two weeks following the tragedy, 500 new volunteers reached out to the Red Cross. Though large outpourings like that are common in the wake of exceptional events like the Marathon (or, say, typhoon Haiyan), Barrios says that the real challenge for an organization like the Red Cross, where volunteers comprise 96 percent of the workforce, is in retaining that passion and commitment and directing it toward the organization’s ongoing humanitarian work around events that grab fewer headlines but are no less personally devastating: house fires, for instance.
Yet under Barrios’ leadership, our local Red Cross has seen its active volunteer base increase by a whopping 180 percent; he adds that the conversion rate for new volunteers, which reflects the success in guiding prospects from initial interest to tangible action, now stands at about 32 percent, or double the national average. Some of that success, says Barrios, stems from now being the first Red Cross region in the country to employ newly developed software that allows volunteers to sign up and get involved via an online database of available opportunities.
The unique web platform has also helped the Red Cross develop in diversity, which is central to Barrios’ vision. Innovation has helped the Red Cross connect with younger crowds that can replace aging-out volunteers; since Barrios took the helm, the average of new volunteers is 27. And youth volunteers, reflecting participants in the organization’s high school and college clubs, have literally doubled. In addition, under Barrios (who previously founded of ¿Oíste?, a still-vital nonprofit Latino political action organization) over 40 percent of Red Cross volunteers speak a second language: largely Spanish, though 49 others are represented.
“Something that’s incredibly important to me is that we reflect the diversity of the communities we serve,” says Barrios, who has supported his work by growing the organization’s fundraising budget from $4.3 million in 2011 to $9.9 million in 2013. ($18.5 million, if including monies raised for Hurricane Sandy.)
The value of diversity, naturally, begs a different question for this longtime gay power player: looking to the future, could Barrios ever see himself returning to work with an organization that specifically focuses on the LGBT community? The short answer is “no.” Barrios stepped down from GLAAD amid some hubbub: the organization issued a statement supporting the merger of a corporate donor (AT&T, with T-Mobile), and letter from his office was sent to the FCC opposing net neutrality, leading to accusations of impropriety. Barrios is no longer interested in stirring up the pot, or in trying to clean the air: “What’s done is done,” he says. “I’m proud of my two years at GLAAD and of the staff I hired. I don’t want them, the organization or its brand to suffer, and for that reason I left with head held high and without disparaging anyone. I’m not going to start now.”
There is, however, one world he won’t rule out revisiting.
“I left public office at the height of my political career because I missed too many dinners at home with my kids. I told myself I needed to be around more until my oldest son was done with high school.”
Well, now he’s sophomore. When he’s finished? Would Barrios consider another run for public office?
He pauses. “I would certainly consider that.”
And why not? It’s one more race to win.
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