Scripps CEO Chris Van Gorder volunteers up to 1,000 hours a year to this demanding but needed work

I recently caught up with Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health, after he and other volunteers with the San Diego sheriff's department concluded a search and recovery mission for two missing people. An older man and his five-year-old grandson had been swept away while trying to cross a flooded road in San Diego. After the search and recovery team found the grandfather's body, the little boy remained missing.

Two days later, Mr. Van Gorder and his team recovered the boy's body. After a few email exchanges, I paused to think about the tragic loss of two lives, as well as the difficult nature of the work done by Mr. Van Gorder and his fellow SAR team members. 

But Mr. Van Gorder says his volunteer work with the sheriff's department's SAR team is mostly rewarding and uplifting.

"Most of it is happy," he told me on the phone. "A majority of our searches end up positively, with us being able to return a person to their loved ones."

Sometimes the SAR team is tasked with finding dementia patients who have wandered from their caretakers. Other times the team is dispatched to help during major traumatic events. Of course, like this recent SAR mission, sometimes the goal is recovering bodies. Such cases could involve someone getting lost in the wilderness and dying of exposure, suicide or medical crises. Although these missions are difficult, Mr. Van Gorder says he is glad he gets to help the families that endure these tragedies find some peace of mind.

Why volunteer?

Mr. Van Gorder says volunteering with the SAR team helps him connect with and serve the community in boots-on-the-ground fashion. It also enables him to stay involved with law enforcement, where he had built a career as a police officer before experiencing a critical injury on the job in 1978. He was then forced to retire.

"As an administrator, [volunteering] gives me a chance to be on the frontlines," he says. "I get to go out and do work in the field. It brings me back to my roots. You know, when I was hurt as a policeman and forced to retire, that career was taken away from me without my choice. When I hang up the badge next time, it will be my choice."

After several promotions throughout his 15 years of volunteering with the sheriff's department, Mr. Van Gorder now serves as reserve assistant sheriff. The time commitment varies, as the work comes on a case-by-case basis, but he says he volunteers between 500 and 1,000 hours per year.

In addition to the fulfillment that comes from volunteering and the opportunity to work with law enforcement, Mr. Van Gorder says he enjoys serving with the SAR team because it's a diversion from the regular responsibilities and stresses that accompany his day job as Scripps' CEO.

"Administrators these days are facing all sorts of changes with the new administration and lots of anxiety," he says. "When I can put on my uniform and go into the field, I'm not worrying as much about healthcare policy and all of the changes. I get to go back to some very practical, simple work that is very important — at least to a small group of people."

How to make the time

When I asked Mr. Van Gorder how he finds the time to serve as CEO of Scripps and assume the role of reserve assistant sheriff — in addition to spending time with his family — he said simply, "I just do it."

It takes time to figure out how to balance priorities that span work, family and personal interests, but Mr. Van Gorder thinks he's got it down. He added that his volunteer work with the SAR team usually takes place after hours at night or on the weekends. On rare occasions is he called away from his work at Scripps to help lead a mission.

Mr. Van Gorder recognizes that his particular choice of volunteer work may not be for everyone, but he says everyone can give back to the community in a way that is meaningful and brings personal satisfaction.

"For healthcare leaders in particular, we are vital community assets," he says. "If you want to know if you're serving the community well, you have to get out there. You don't have to do something like I'm doing, but there are lots of opportunities to take your expertise in healthcare or leadership and take it to a nonprofit or community group and create some extra benefit."

To colleagues interested in exploring or expanding their volunteer commitments, Mr. Van Gorder gave the following advice:

"Follow your passion and give what time you can, and I can almost guarantee you'll find great reward and personal satisfaction."


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