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Red Cross: A century of service in the Northland

A little more than three hours after watching her house burn to the ground, Lorraine Simpson and her husband, Ron, were sitting at a Perkins restaurant and being handed a debit card by two Red Cross volunteers.

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After Ron and Lorraine Simpson's house burned down, the Red Cross helped them get back their feet. They provided money for clothing and also set them up in a hotel and provided emotional support. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

A little more than three hours after watching her house burn to the ground, Lorraine Simpson and her husband, Ron, were sitting at a Perkins restaurant and being handed a debit card by two Red Cross volunteers.

These volunteers gave Ron and Lorraine what they needed to survive in the modern world after losing everything: $385 on a Visa card, two nights in a hotel room, emotional support and time to think.

"(Our son's) house was filled with their children, and we could have stayed there, but it wouldn't have given us time to think," Lorraine said. "The Red Cross knew we needed this time and ... it was amazing."

The Duluth chapter of the Red Cross - now part of a chapter serving 17 counties in the Northland - is gearing up to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Founded in 1915, the chapter has changed significantly during the past century. While volunteers once knit thousands of pairs of socks to send to soldiers overseas, they now help organize housing for victims of natural disasters, provide counseling and deliver meals, among other things.

But Dan Williams, the executive director for the northern Minnesota chapter, said the core services the Red Cross provides have stayed the same. The organization has five lines of service - disaster assistance; services to the armed forces; blood donation; preparedness, health and safety training; and international services.

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"What's changed over time is how we deliver those services," Williams said. "One of the strengths of the Red Cross has been sort of adapting to the new world of how nonprofits work. So there's more access to technology now; there's more access to communication; there's better transportation. ... It's drastically more efficient to deliver services."

Duluth chapter formation

The American Red Cross was founded in 1881, following the Civil War. Three decades later, with World War I underway, Adm. William Knickerbocker Van Reypen visited Duluth and helped found the city's chapter.

Van Reypen saw the need for a Duluth chapter. In a News Tribune article published in August 1915, he expressed his support, referring to Duluth as "the largest city in the midst of a great territory."

The chapter was formed by unanimous vote at a mass meeting of "representative Duluth men and women."

The chapter was put to work shortly after its formation. In October 1918, a forest fire destroyed 1,500 square miles near Cloquet and Moose Lake. More than 200 people died and thousands were left homeless. The Red Cross helped feed, clothe and house fire victims, just as it would for the Simpsons 100 years later.

Red Cross volunteers also worked to assist soldiers fighting in World War I. At one point, the organization suffered from a shortage of yarn after 1,000 knitters worked for six months to make socks for troops.

Modern, but still personal

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Today, the Red Cross still receives handmade goods.

"A person will stop by and you can always tell what they're here for when the back of their SUV pops open," Williams said. "You undoubtedly see someone grab big garbage bags and they're ... full of quilts that people have made."

Dave Gearou, who has been volunteering with the Red Cross for five years, said one of the strengths of the organization is its flexibility. Gearou is heavily involved and at one point traveled to four natural disasters in ten weeks. Others, however, are invited to serve when they can.

"Just about anything you want to do at the Red Cross you can do," Gearou said. "You can be as active as you want. ... I do an awful lot, but then there's the other end that can only do what they can."

Gearou has seen the modern side of the Red Cross. When he was helping at the site of a tornado in Minot, N.D., he talked with a man whose mother was killed. Gearou was upset and went outside to take a break.

"I went outside in the grass and had a couple of tears ... all of a sudden there's a dog with his head on my shoulder," he said. "I look down, and pretty soon there's another dog, and pretty soon there's a dog across my lap, and there were the three dogs."

Gearou had come upon care dogs provided by the Lutheran Brotherhood, an organization that partners with the Red Cross. After playing with the dogs, he felt well enough to go inside and talk to a counselor before continuing with his work.

The Simpsons also are grateful for the Red Cross' human touch.

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"They are modernized, but in that modernization they haven't taken away the human factor," Lorraine said.

"It's personal," Ron agreed.

Plans for exhibit

To celebrate the organization's century of serving the Northland, the Red Cross is partnering with the St. Louis County Historical Society to put on an exhibit in the Small Fesler Gallery at the Depot that will showcase the chapter's 100 years of history. A firm opening date has not been set, but Milissa Brooks-Ojibway, collections manager for the Historical Society, said the exhibit should open by Sept. 1.

Brooks-Ojibway hopes people will see the unique qualities of the local Red Cross chapter.

"I'm hoping they will come in and they will see not just ... what the wonderful national Red Cross does," she said. "I hope that they see this is what our local people have done over the years.

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