Code Red

For 100 years, the Red Cross in Greenwich has been different things to different people. For a sick child, it is a pint of needed blood; for a grieving mother, a shoulder to cry on; for an elderly woman outside the burnt ruins of her home, a dry blanket and a cup of coffee on a frosty winter’s night.

For a Brunswick junior back in 1960, it began as a way to meet girls—and wound up a vocation. Asked what kept him going for fifty-four years, Ross Ogden chuckles: “I’ve never been bored with the Red Cross.” Ogden, who for years oversaw the American Red Cross’s national network of volunteers, and whose own volunteerism took him to earthquake sites, hurricane landfalls, and Manhattan’s Ground Zero, is emblematic of a community where caring and compassion become action.
“It’s a great way to help your neighbor,” he says. “All of us, when we see terrible things happen, want to help. The Red Cross gives you the chance to do that.”


The Shelter in the Storm

Founded in November of 1914 as World War I raged across the Atlantic, the American Red Cross—Greenwich Chapter, as it was known, began humbly. Katharine Knapp, assistant director of the chapter from 1941 to 1979, described it in a 1989 Greenwich Library oral history as a group of women doing what they could—rolling bandages, knitting socks and mufflers, and participating in morale-building parades.

“The staff aides had yellow veils, the production workers had navy-blue veils, canteen [workers] had light-blue veils, and administration had red veils,” she recalled. “As they went down Greenwich Avenue with their various colors and veils flying, it was beautiful.”

Today the Red Cross still makes a vivid impression on the Greenwich community, with an annual spring soirée, the Red & White Ball, which has become one of the hottest tickets on the town social calendar (see sidebar “Having a Ball,” page 143). It has also expanded its service portfolio, with more active support of U.S. military personnel, smartphone-ready apps designed to tap emergency volunteers instantaneously, and supply-filled trailers parked around town in case another disaster hits Greenwich like Hurricane Sandy did two years ago.

“When you look at what we’ve done over time, we’ve stuck to the mission of [American Red Cross founder] Clara Barton, but we have expanded the mission to help more people,” says the current board chair of the American Red Cross’s Metro New York North chapter, Giovanna Miller. “Our goal is to help as many people as we can.”

Metro New York North is what the Greenwich chapter became in 2011. In addition to Greenwich, it comprises five counties in New York State: Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange and Sullivan, serving over two million residents. The chapter headquarters remains in Greenwich, on Indian Field Road just across the street from the rail-line with the confusingly similar name.

Consolidation was necessary, Red Cross people say, in response to tougher economic times and a need to better manage resources to achieve three basic missions: disaster relief, blood donation and caring for
U.S. service personnel.

“In an effort to bring us into the next 100 years, and sustain ourselves, we became one Red Cross,” notes Mary Young, CEO of Metro New York North. “Many of our back-office functions were consolidated. It’s running more efficiently than ever before.”

During its first hundred years, the Red Cross in Greenwich has evolved from an ad-hoc organization promoting parades and quilting bees to a more established entity. In 1950 it set up headquarters at a house on the corner of the Post Road and Park Place, where it remained until 2003.

During World War II, the Red Cross looked in on the recovering wounded and promoted supply drives for the war effort. A 1943 newspaper item notes a “Victory Book Drive” codirected by Dorothy Walker Bush—future mother and grandmother of American presidents, then active in the Greenwich Red Cross Motor Corps. The item asks for “adventure and Western, detective and mystery fiction (this is the type most sought by the men)” as well as “books of jokes, anecdotes, and cartoons, of a reasonably high standard.”

 

Ogden remembers going door-to-door on a Sunday each March collecting donations for the local Red Cross. He and other older teenagers also did what was called “stand-by” at local fires and other disaster scenes, dispensing water and oxygen to emergency personnel and administering to the injured on occasion. Directing this effort was a local dentist, Richard O’Leary, who drove his own ambulance and taught the youngsters advanced first aid.

“If an explosion or something occurred, we were there to help the firemen,” says another who volunteered for the Greenwich Red Cross in his teens, town Police Chief James Heavey. “It was a very robust organization for a number of years. We didn’t have GEMS, or many of the services we have today.” Heavey credits the Red Cross with giving him “the bug” for public service.

Regarding the new Metro New York North, First Selectman Peter Tesei notes that while Greenwich now enjoys access to a broader pool of shared services, it must also compete for attention with neighboring towns if impacted by a regional crisis, like Hurricane Sandy. “I personally found having a Greenwich chapter to be of greater value,” Tesei says. “You had a sole focus on the town of Greenwich. We’ve lost some of that local identity, and the concentration of effort when it was the Greenwich chapter.”

The youth program that began in 1982 under the Greenwich chapter’s umbrella, Safe Rides, provided teens with “no-questions-asked” car rides on weekend evenings. Metro New York North discontinued its support of Safe Rides last spring, in response to nationally mandated service streamlining. The town is currently seeking a new sponsor. And another local service started by the Greenwich Red Cross, Motor Services, designed to drive needy residents to doctors, was turned over this year to the Transportation Association of Greenwich (TAG).

Pam Farr, who chaired the Greenwich Red Cross from 2001 to 2004 and went on to chair the national organization’s finance and volunteer committees, explains that reorganization was a necessity. “When I first got involved in the Red Cross, we had 2,000-plus chapters, and each of them did everything,” she says. “Their own bank accounts, their own payroll, IT, websites. That had to change. It was terribly inefficient and not a good use of donor dollars.”

Having local chapters also raised troubling issues regarding disparity of services. “You take a Greenwich, or a Palm Beach, or a Santa Monica, and then juxtapose that with Biloxi, Mississippi, a very poor population being hit by hurricanes year after year,” Farr adds. “We were trying to equalize it out a little bit.”

Other aspects of Red Cross efforts in Greenwich remain as strong as ever. Over 2,300 units of blood have been collected at forty-one separate blood drives in town since mid-2013, the largest of them at Temple Shalom, which alone has supplied 400 units during that time.

Blood is an especially critical need in the mind of Mara Lozier Shore, a member of the Metro New York North board of directors who spearheads drives at Greenwich Country Day School. Her son Will, diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia as a toddler, required donated blood to survive. He has since made a full recovery; her goal now is helping others achieve the same assistance.

“The American Red Cross supplies 40 percent of the nation’s blood,” she explains. “It’s really important for us to raise the profile of blood donations, the handling of blood donations, as one of the primary functions of the Red Cross.”

 

The Next 100

There is a sense of growing seriousness of purpose with the Red Cross in Greenwich, concomitant with its move from the pleasant Colonial on the Post Road (now occupied by the Junior League of Greenwich) to its current digs, a bunker-like edifice with foot-thick cinderblock walls, a spacious garage and a generator to provide a week’s power. “It was charming,” Farr says of the old headquarters, “but charming is not the mission of the Red Cross.”

The mission of the Red Cross came into sharper focus with the new century. Greenwich had a ringside seat to its seminal event thus far, the destruction of the Twin Towers. In Greenwich, the Red Cross initially worked on collecting blood for injured survivors—a task soon revealed to be sadly optimistic—then conducted grief support and counseling for family members of the
dozens from Greenwich killed that morning.

“We had mental health services here, too, helping our first responders when they came back,” recalls Pam Farr, who was the Greenwich Red Cross chair at the time. “On 9/11, the city was shut down. There were children in schools whose parents were stuck in the city. So we set up shelters.”

At the 2002 Red & White Ball, $350,000 was raised to buy an 18-wheeler that operates as a field kitchen. Dubbed “The Spirit of America,” it has traveled to disaster sites around the country, feeding emergency personnel as well as disaster victims.
When Sandy hit, “Spirit of America” was at the parking lot of Aqueduct Raceway on Long Island, where Colleen Hempleman, a longtime member of the Metro New York North board who raised funds for the vehicle, got to see it working at full capacity, preparing 20,000 hot meals a day.

“There it was, with all these emergency response vehicles, we call them ERVs, around it,” she recalls. “The smaller trucks would go up to the big truck, load up with meals, and go out to neighborhoods to distribute them.”

Sandy took its measure of Greenwich, too. Roads were blocked by falling trees, houses burned, and families were left homeless. Metro New York North opened a shelter at the Eastern Civic Center, which stayed in operation for over a week.

“While many chose to go with friends, not everyone in town had that opportunity, so having that shelter was a real comfort, especially where there were mandatory evacuations around flood areas,” notes Tesei. “They provided a critical need.”

With Metro New York North’s expansive service area comes more opportunity to give aid. Now, whether it’s a rail accident at Spuyten Duyvil, a house fire in Yonkers, or a plane crash near Westchester County Airport, Metro New York North’s headquarters at Exit 4 on I-95 is on the case, dispatching emergency personnel to the scene.

Volunteers have always been the backbone of the American Red Cross, providing more than 90 percent of its manpower. More than 800 are on call at Metro New York North.

“We have been doing this forever,” notes Mary Young. “We may have responded in a very different way, being individual chapters, but now we have the ability to respond at the national level. Where else can you find people getting up in the middle of the night when they get a phone call, to go out in the cold and spend hours and hours
out there? And a lot of them go to work the next day, too. It’s just a real commitment to give back and care.”

 

 

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