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Local Red Cross volunteer Patty Albin holds up a Volunteer Special Services indoor uniform from the 1940s or ’50s. - Photo by Larry Stauth Jr.

Century of service

As World War I roared on the other side of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1917, American National Red Cross chapters opened their doors across Oregon. By the spring of 1918, Jackson County had its own chapter.

Slogans rallied volunteers to “Knit Sox! Our Boys Need It! Knit Your Bit!” In addition, they made garments, bandages and surgical dressings to ship overseas.

On April 5, Red Cross will celebrate 100 years in the Rogue Valley.

The Jackson County chapter had branches in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass and was later called the Southern Oregon chapter.

In 1918, the new chapter played a vital role in the war relief efforts as well as in the battle to contain a deadly flu epidemic raging across the state. Southern Oregon volunteers sewed face masks in an attempt to protect local residents from pneumonia.

In the aftermath of the “war to end all wars,” Red Cross provided a safety net of social services for displaced war veterans and transient families throughout the 1920s. During the Great Depression, families received food and clothing.

When World War II erupted, Rogue Valley volunteers again helped with the relief efforts overseas and went to work at Camp White and in the canteen at the Medford airport.

When Red Cross Disaster Relief Services moved in February from the Hawthorne Street office shared with Blood Services to new digs on Crater Lake Avenue, volunteer Patty Albin came across posters, scrapbooks and historical accounts of the chapter’s century of achievements.

Posters now on display at the new office date back to the 1940s, when residents were charged with “Make Good the Promise” and “The Pot of Gold, Keep It Full.” The nationwide challenge was to raise $100 million for the war fund. Although there is no record of the actual dollar amount raised, the Jackson County chapter was given a certificate for Distinguished Achievement for its contribution to the 1943 war fund.

The chapter’s success stories are evident in the newspaper clippings pasted in the scrapbooks. Headlines tell of record-breaking blood drives; thousands trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first-aid, life-saving, parenting and babysitting; and feature hundreds of volunteers who responded to disasters in the region, including the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, floods and wildfires, and who comforted military families and returning veterans during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In 1975, the chapter was recognized for its Youth Aquatic and First Aid School and the director of the program received Red Cross’ highest award for Volunteer Community Service.

Established in 1966, the Youth Aquatic School was at the time the only one of its kind in the nation. Each June, young people 15 years and older attended the weeklong safety course with training sessions at Southern Oregon State College (now Southern Oregon University) and Emigrant Lake. Taught by volunteers, the school was developed to train YMCA workers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church youth groups and Parks and Recreation staff.

In 1981, the chapter had one of the most active safety programs in Oregon with 6,015 volunteers trained in first aid, water safety, small craft, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and the Heimlich maneuver.

In the move, Albin discovered a stash of uniforms that reflects Red Cross’ evolution from Clara Barton’s formally dressed nursing corps to today’s red-vested boots-on-the-ground action teams. After a bit of research, Albin was able to determine the age and purpose of each uniform.

A wool jacket and shoulder bag was worn by a courier during the winter in the 1940s and 1950s. This volunteer made sure blood donations and other supplies were dispatched.

The distinctive Gray Ladies dress popularized in the World War II era was worn until the 1960s. Gray Ladies underwent rigorous training and worked in military and civilian hospitals, blood centers and in the field after a natural disaster.

Other items, including a white-collared yellow dress worn by a Special Service volunteer, a nurse’s aide jumper and a blue jacket and skirt, all have patches and shoulder epaulets that signify the specific area of service.

Today, red-vested volunteers, male and female, serve the Southwest Oregon region and are deployed to natural disasters across the country and around the world.

Rogue Valley volunteers are part of the Eugene-based Southwest Oregon chapter that serves residents in Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Klamath, Coos, Curry, Lane, Benton, Lake and Linn counties.

Local volunteers trade specially designed chapter pins displaying distinctive logos with other Red Cross workers wherever they are deployed. A map in the Crater Lake Avenue office has 100 or more pins scattered across the map of the United States.

After terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, Oregon sent more Red Cross volunteers per capita than any other state to support victims and relief workers and to process donors wanting to give blood. How many were from Southern Oregon is unclear, said Albin.

“But nevertheless, it makes me proud to be part of this organization,” she said.

Last fall when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Albin and her husband, Chuck, were among the scores of Red Cross responders from Oregon.

Sometimes, Red Cross efforts are headline-making, but more often than not, the local Red Cross “flies under the radar,” said Albin.

For instance, on March 24, without fanfare, volunteers installed 64 free smoke alarms in Shady Cove and other rural neighborhoods as part of Red Cross’ “Sound the Alarm” initiative and “Home Fire Campaign.”

Preventing disasters is as much a part of the work as responding to catastrophic events, said Albin. And many of those catastrophic events are close to home.

Albin recalls the winter of 2016-17 when deep snow blanketed the Illinois Valley. Roads were impassable and residents were trapped without electricity or communication. Volunteers had to roll out Sno-Cats to rescue folks and bring them into the Cave Junction area where Red Cross had set up shelters.

On several occasions, a telephone call has rousted the Albins out of bed. They have rushed to assist a family whose house has just burned to the ground. Sometimes, families escape the blaze with only the clothes on their backs.

Disaster Relief Services provides blankets, toiletries, toys to comfort the children, and distributes resource guides with information about housing, financial assistance, insurance and organizations that can help with food and clothing.

Last August, the local Disaster Action Team handed out water, miscellaneous supplies and information packets to evacuees of the Chetco Bar fire near Brookings and helped serve hot meals to firefighters.

Earlier this year, during the Oroville Dam disaster in Northern California, Rogue Valley volunteers teamed up with other Red Cross workers during relief operations for evacuees.

Disaster Relief Services is now promoting “Prepare Out Loud” in Southern Oregon. This Red Cross program is gearing up for a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake predicted to affect millions of Pacific Northwest residents.

If the quake is as destructive as expected, it would disrupt travel, communications and access to essential services such as water and electricity. Individuals and families are urged to store food and water, gather supplies and create family emergency plans.

Part of planning for that disaster is recruiting more volunteers and storing more blood and blood products.

But as the need for assistance continues, the number of volunteers has dropped. In 1978, there were 616 volunteers overall, and in the 1980s, some 400 volunteers collected blood every month in Jackson County. Today there are only 124 volunteers in Jackson County in all services, including blood collections, CPR and disaster relief. Nineteen are on the Disaster Action Team, primarily responding to house fires.

With just a few volunteers, 6,484 blood donations were collected between March 2017 and March 2018 — an increase of 1.8 percent over the same period between March 2016 and March 2017.

Albin hopes the generosity of donors and commitment of volunteers will preserve the local chapter’s legacy and ensure another 100 years of service.

“Disasters seem to bring the need (for Red Cross) to the forefront,” said Albin. “So often we have heard, ‘I have donated to Red Cross, but never thought I would need it.’ ”

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

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