Our view: Charity alone can't bear the cross of emergency relief
An organization like the American Red Cross -- which has always just been there, ready to help, in the face of any disaster, and for 93 years -- is easy to take for granted. We can just assume its existence and assistance are assured, right?...
An organization like the American Red Cross -- which has always just been there, ready to help, in the face of any disaster, and for 93 years -- is easy to take for granted. We can just assume its existence and assistance are assured, right?
Countless news stories this spring and early summer told of tornadoes, floods, wildfires and other calamities that have caused funding gaps at local Red Cross chapters and depleted its National Disaster Fund. It's enough to cause anyone to take pause.
"You don't think about the Red Cross until something happens. You don't know what the Red Cross does until you need them," Howie Leathers, the regional development director for the Red Cross' Northland Chapter, based in Duluth, said this week during a meeting with the News Tribune editorial board. "An emergency can happen anytime. When it does we're there to help."
The organization helps in lots of ways, the most visible of which is at those disasters. Operating from their instantly identifiable trucks, volunteers hand out water and food and help victims find the emergency services they need. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, 126 Northland volunteers deployed. During last year's California wildfires, 20 from the Northland dropped everything and went. Right now, four Northland chapter volunteers are helping flood victims in the Madison, Wis., area.
"Fortunately, we have wonderful volunteers," said Tony Guerra, the director of emergency services for the Northland chapter. "They work hard. They work very hard. But they come back smiling and fulfilled."
Far less visible, but no less important, is the assistance of Red Cross volunteers after fires or other accidents that leave folks homeless. The fire department calls the Red Cross from the scene, sometimes before the blaze is even extinguished or the flood waters through the kitchen have receded. An on-call volunteer checks the displaced into hotel rooms, makes sure they're fed and gives them store vouchers to replace lost clothing. Later, the volunteer gets them in touch with other agencies or charities, including the Salvation Army, that can offer additional assistance. But it all starts with the Red Cross.
"We're like the first responders," Guerra said. "We all work together pretty well on the local level.
"But [the Red Cross is] all over. We're not just disaster response," Guerra said.
Indeed. The organization also teaches kids how to swim and how to be babysitters. In the Northland, it trains 5,000 people a year in lifeguarding and water-safety skills. And it teaches people -- an estimated 10,000 a year in the Northland -- first aid and CPR. Last year the Northland chapter started offering classes on how to administer first aid to cats and dogs.
In addition, the Northland chapter makes 300 to 400 calls a year to military members stationed around the globe to inform them of the birth of a child or the death of a loved one. The Red Cross also helps the military confirm the need for emergency leave for military members.
The Northland chapter is the Red Cross' geographically largest chapter east of the Mississippi. And it's about to get larger. This summer, the Northwestern Wisconsin counties of Ashland, Bayfield and Iron will join the chapter, which already covers more than 25,000 square miles of Koochiching, Itasca, Aitkin, St. Louis, Carlton, Lake, Cook and Douglas counties.
"It's a great organization. We reach out and touch a lot of people," Guerra said.
But only if people continue to reach out and touch the charity. Though the Red Cross was created by an act of Congress in 1915, it isn't a government agency and isn't financially supported by the government. Its money comes through the United Way and from contributions that can be left at redcross.org.
Most can give a little. A few can give a lot. Even if few completely comprehend all that the Red Cross does -- until they need its assistance.