Red Cross Chapter Charts a Fresh Course

By C.K. WOLFSON

Brenda Lehman remembers when she was five, and her family lost everything in an apartment fire, and again when she was 12, in another other fire in Dorchester.

"The only people there to help us were the Red Cross and the Salvation Army," she said. "After Sept. 11 I said, that's it. I have time for everything else, now it's the time to volunteer for Red Cross. I want to give back."

She has. Despite having multiple sclerosis, Ms. Lehman serves as a canteen volunteer for the Martha's Vineyard chapter of the American Red Cross, helping to provide on site nourishment for workers at search and rescue sites.

And there is urgent need for more volunteers like her.

The Island chapter of the Red Cross is at a crossroads. Chapter leaders say they must breathe new life into the organization.

"The Red Cross needs more of a sense of local ownership," said board chairman Art Flathers.

The organization has set a goal of tripling its volunteer ranks from 36 to 72, forming new committees to support their 20-member board and increasing community awareness.

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Islanders, Mr. Flathers said, need to have a proprietary feeling about the organization, a knowledge that they have a part in helping their neighbors, and they are supported in emergency preparedness.

In a letter mailed to Island residents and reprinted on today's Commentary Page, Mr. Flathers writes: "We may be one of the smallest chapters in the country on an isolated and rural Island, but we have a history of determination."

He refers to 1997, when the chapter, with about 300 members, was at its lowest point. Today membership, which includes anyone who has participated in any aspect of the program, numbers approximately 1,800 people.

Deborah Medders, executive director of the Vineyard Red Cross chapter explained, "We have two paths and they are both equally important: The funding and the support for the operations of the chapter."

The challenge, she continues, is maintaining people's interest. Calling it a paradox, she said, "We want to design a program that engages our volunteers. We have to be able to respond to a disaster, but we don't want a disaster. And because those occurrences are few - and we really don't want them to increase - we're looking at ways that the Island chapter can be a 365-day-a-year presence."

Different volunteer responsibilities and schedules are designed to accommodate volunteers according to their interests, strengths and availabilities, and do not necessarily include victim contact, blood or cardiac pulmonary resuscitation.

Volunteers can be all ages and aptitudes, trained to teach classes or staff shelters if there are power outages or other emergencies. Depending on their tasks volunteers might be called upon once a year or repeatedly.

Ms. Lehman talked about the satisfaction in helping other Islanders. "Without recognition it's even more satisfying. People say, ‘If I have the time . . . ,' and I say, just do it. You can make phone calls or work in the office,"she said.

Among the responsibilities, volunteers can select canteen services and mass care, which supplies on-site nourishment to shelters as well as to search and rescue workers, getting certification to become trainers, working in communications, which includes operating a pager or HAM radio, assisting military personnel and their families with travel and communication needs, or simply offering their office skills.

Since the Red Cross does not allow pets in shelters, the Vineyard chapter, recognizing pets are part of Island culture, calls on volunteers to bring animals to boarding places.

"We take what the national Red Cross has in its national reservoir and look at how to use that to complement what is already here," said Mr. Flathers.

"That reservoir is a national asset, but it needs to be personalized and brought into the community," he added.

Recently, a new father called up the Island chapter to sign up for a class in infant CPR training.

The Red Cross offers classes in water safety, life saving and community first aid. The chapter does not duplicate existing services already offered on the Island such as those provided by visiting nurses, Island Counseling, AIDS Alliance, elder services and the councils on aging.

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"Home safety is something everyone can benefit from, and Red Cross has lots of tools to help people understand what's involved in home safety," said Mr. Flathers, citing one of the many information brochures the Red Cross distributes to schools, councils on aging and individuals.

The chapter is responsible for its own budget, raised through three annual solicitations, tuitions from class enrollments, and from selling the clothing and shoes donated in collection boxes.

Mr. Flathers said the Red Cross board here is aiming to double the annual budget to $100,000 to cover emergencies. To be chartered by national Red Cross, the local chapter has to maintain enough operating expenses to cover 72 hours of a disaster - which would most likely be a hurricane on the Island.

The Vineyard chapter of the Red Cross is hosting an open house this Wednesday from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at their office in the American Legion Hall in Vineyard Haven, across from the Tisbury School. The program will include a display of the services, a video and live presentations. Volunteers and board members will be there to answer questions and provide information.

Mr. Flathers, encouraging everyone to attend, declared, "Become aware. Become involved."