My best day as a vaccination volunteer

Steven Sanbo registers people at a vaccination center in Yavapi County, Arizona.

By Steven Sanbo, past governor of District 6690 and Zone 30 assistant Rotary coordinator

What I recall most are the hundreds of faces. Faces of hope. Faces of relief, gratitude, fear, joy, excitement, desperation, anxiety and yes, faces with tears all hidden behind masks during my volunteer shift at a mass vaccination center in Arizona, USA, on 26 February.

The only other time I had seen hundreds of faces filled with so much emotion was leading a Rotary mission trip in Guatemala in November 2014 to open a trade school. That morning an earthquake measuring 7.4 magnitude hit the San Marcos region 40 miles from where we were working. It was the largest earthquake to hit Guatemala since 1976.

That afternoon I and two other Rotarians volunteered to be first responders with Shelter Box leaving at 04:00 the following morning for San Marcos. You could see it on their faces. The villagers cried for help, support, food, water, shelter, hope for missing family members amid the destruction and crumbled houses. I was there to provide hope.

Vaccination rollout

This December, my wife Jill and I left our home in Columbus, Ohio, where I am a member of the Rotary Club of Upper Arlington, to travel to Cave Creek, Arizona, to spend a few months closer to our three adult children and five grandchildren who all reside in the western U.S.

Feeling we needed to do something to assist with the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, we immediately started looking to volunteer. After six weeks being on a list, my wife received an offer to help the all-night shift at the Glendale Arizona stadium. Since we signed up at the same time, I figured I would get a call at any moment. But one never came. Frustrated, I finally contacted the Arizona Department of Health and was crushed to find out I was “lost” in their system. Once I re-signed up, there were 8,000 volunteers ahead of me.

I wanted to make sure that every person that came through the door that day had their best day in a year.

I didn’t want to wait another two months; I was ready to go. That’s what Rotarians do, right? By pure luck (and persistence) I found a vaccination site in Yavapi County, Arizona, that needed one nonmedical volunteer early the next morning.

I arrived in Verde Valley and was led into the small arena and assigned a position. I was in charge of registration which meant checking people in on a FEMA computer system, given five minutes of training on the software, and turned loose. As people started to line up, I was probably the last person they wanted checking them in as speed learning new software is not my strength.

My strategy

But I had a strategy. I wanted to make sure that every person that came through the door that day had their best day in a year. Even if I could not find them in the system, I assured them it would be fine and they would get vaccinated – I made sure they did. The gratitude on everyone’s faces lifted my heart as I watched each one of the 700 people receive their shot.

One person had a fear of needles, so I rushed her through the line. Another needed to get to her chemo treatment, so I put her ahead. Four people in their 90’s showed up. The youngest was 18 years old and in a wheelchair. Two people I registered were Rotarians who noticed the Rotary logo on my mask.

I was overwhelmed by the kindness from the volunteers and people receiving shots. Even if people didn’t say thanks, you could see it in their eyes and behind their masks. As I drove back that night, I reflected on how it had been one of my best days since joining Rotary 21 years ago. You could probably see it in my smiling face too.

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