Cross of care

Red Cross volunteers Pat Birchmier, left, and Carol Brittain

The American Red Cross is a name associated with saving lives
and restoring hope during the worst of times. The organization is
at the forefront of global and local disaster relief, from the
measles epidemic in Third World countries to the powerful storms
that ravaged part of California earlier this year.
The American Red Cross is a name associated with saving lives and restoring hope during the worst of times. The organization is at the forefront of global and local disaster relief, from the measles epidemic in Third World countries to the powerful storms that ravaged part of California earlier this year.

When the Croy fire ripped through Uvas Canyon in 2002, the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the Red Cross deployed about 400 locally-based volunteers to set up a day shelter and fire support center, and provided financial assistance to 21 families.

About 850 registered volunteers serve 1.5 million county residents – from Sunnyvale to Gilroy – with the Santa Clara Valley Chapter, while more than 1 million volunteers serve across the country. Local volunteers are supported by 23 paid staff members and about 24 part-time staffers.

Last year, 117 of those volunteers responded to 98 local emergencies and provided 148 families with needed housing, clothing, food, mental health counseling, and disaster health services, representing more than $79,000 in aid.

Some of those emergencies, mostly residential fires, occurred in Gilroy. Red Cross volunteers were there to help families pick up the pieces when, in a matter of hours, their homes were uninhabitable and they were left with little more than the clothes on their backs.

If their home is uninhabitable, family members are given a three-night hotel stay. If an apartment complex or neighborhood is destroyed, the Red Cross opens a shelter, as it did with the Croy victims. Victims can buy food or clothing with donated money.

“When people are going through something such as this – you have a fire, and something is red-tagged – we do anything we can for them to address their immediate disaster-caused needs,” said Pat Moore, the volunteer coordinator for the Red Cross in South County.

But it is in meeting victims’ special needs where the Red Cross shines, said Cynthia Shaw, director of communications and marketing for the Silicon Valley Chapter. Prescription medications are a necessity often lost in the chaos of an emergency that can be replaced before a dose is missed, until victims can get to their regular doctor.

“We had one case recently when the father had left his insulin behind, so we were able to give immediate assistance and help him get more insulin,” Shaw said. “In another recent fire, we had a grandmother who left her glasses behind. She was legally blind and couldn’t see without them, so we got her new glasses, and dentures.”

In the absence of emergency needs, Gilroyans regularly step out and volunteer for the Red Cross at blood drives, held on the second Thursday of each month.

Pat Birchmier welcomes blood donors during the five-hour drives, helps them register, and sends them where they need to go. The 68-year-old has been volunteering with the Red Cross for seven years.

“I enjoy seeing the people that I know, and meeting new people,” she said. “I feel good about it because I feel like I’m doing something for somebody.”

She especially enjoys occasional blood drives at Gilroy High School, where she is always impressed by the number of qualified students who turn out to give. High school and college students account for 15 percent of the blood donated to the Red Cross.

The need for blood donations is constant, and the Red Cross is responsible for half the country’s blood supplies and blood products.

In Santa Clara Valley, 250 donors are needed each day to serve 16 hospitals from San Jose to Santa Cruz, including Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy and Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister, as well as 11 more hospitals in the East Bay.

“It goes where it’s needed,” said Kathryn Cale, Red Cross’ communications specialist for blood services in Northern California. “It really is kind of a day-to-day, as-needed basis.”

The blood supply currently in South County and across the country is “pretty tight,” Cale said.

“Right now for the region and Northern California, I think we’re holding at about a three-day supply, at most,” she said.

A seven-day supply is desirable, she said. Supplies usually dip in the winter and the summer, when travel makes it difficult for donors to attend drives.

Gilroy resident Shirley Cotta, who like Birchmier volunteers at the community drives, said she encourages everyone to donate blood when they can.

“Especially on Thursday, because we have shirts with a Red Cross ID,” Cotta said. “If we go to the grocery store or a coffee shop, we tell everybody: ‘There’s a drive today’.”

“They could save a life,” Birchmier said she tells potential donors. “Blood doesn’t last very long. A lot of times people don’t understand that. After 9/11, people were turned down. It upset some people, but they were getting so much blood, they didn’t want to lose it.”

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, half a million people donated blood. A steady stream of donors is needed, though, because blood must be used within 42 days of collection.

Though Cotta’s work is mostly behind the scenes, she is no less vital in helping the drives run smoothly. The 67-year-old, along with Judy Filice, prepares the bags that will hold donated blood. They make sure the lines are open and moist, put on the vials, and number everything.

“We’re lovingly called the ‘bag ladies’,” Cotta said. “I like being a bag lady. We’re off to ourselves, and we make sure no one will have to wait for anything.”

Cotta completed a brief training to prepare the bags and received a certification, which must be renewed annually.

“It’s a very worthwhile cause,” Cotta said. “And I really enjoy the people that work for the Red Cross – they really appreciate us, they thank us. Some of the (technicians) thank us for every bag they take.

“And because we do it locally, we know most of the donors when they come in. There’s some of them who have given gallons of blood, and a lot of times we see the same people come back, over and over again.”

Now a part-time bookkeeper, Cotta said a friend got her started volunteering with the Red Cross when she retired as an office manager five years ago.

“It was the first volunteer work that I’d done, and it was a good fit, so I haven’t looked for anything else,” she said.

However, blood donations and supply are only a fraction of the Red Cross’ services. The organization’s overseas reach can benefit South County residents as well, said Elena Grover, 26, the Santa Clara Valley chapter’s lead caseworker in the emergency services department.

“We have a lot of services available to service members and their families,” said Grover, a life-long Gilroy resident. “When there is an emergency, we are able to send messages to them, or when there’s the need for a leave we can provide referrals, or even offer financial assistance, depending on the circumstances.”

Last year, 376 military personnel and their families were able to exchange emergency family messages with the help of the local Red Cross. The “Operation Care and Comfort” military care package program also sent more than 50,000 pounds of supplies, from food to clothing to toiletries, to members of the armed forces stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, according to the chapter’s Web site.

Other international services offered by the Red Cross are tracing residents’ relatives who have been separated while in a country upset by civil war or other unrest, and searches of Nazi records to determine whether people were victims of the Holocaust, Grover said.

A little closer to home, classes are offered by volunteers on a weekly basis, in subjects such as water safety, lifeguarding, swimming, baby-sitting, even pet first aid. Although Gilroy’s Red Cross office closed about a year ago, the same services are offered out of the chapter office in San Jose.

As a caseworker, Grover said she has helped in numerous unpredictable emergencies.

“It’s really volatile,” she said. “When I first started, we had an apartment fire that affected 12 families, the next weekend we had one that was 10 units, the next weekend we had one that was 11 units.

“I just really feel that I want to give back to the community, like I’m doing something that makes a difference.”

So far, she has traveled out to one national disaster: Hurricanes in Florida that destroyed lives, homes and businesses seven months ago. Grover spent three weeks, with two days off, working in a hurricane evacuation shelter.

“I like just being there when families are in the most need, when they’ve lost everything they’ve had – to be there supporting them,” she said. “It was hard work, long hours, and very emotional. I was glad to go home.”

And yet, she said, she would gladly accept the challenge again.

Blood drive support

• Gilroy is one of only three cities in the entire South Bay to support successful monthly blood drives, and has been hosting a monthly community blood drive for almost two years.

• Local businesses also support blood collections.

• The regular Gilroy community drive is on the second Thursday of the month at First Baptist Church, 8455 Wren Avenue, from 1:30 to 6:30 pm. The Red Cross tries to collect 50 pints of blood at each drive.

• Next drive is Thursday, April 14.

Make an appointment by calling

800-GIVE-LIFE or logging on to

Source: American Red Cross

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