Red Cross maintains lifeblood

Western Slope Chapter buoyed by volunteers as organization deals with cutbacks nationwide

“We’ve been able to downsize and rely heavily on volunteers. It’s reinvigorated our volunteer base,” said Eric Myers, right, executive director of the Western Slope Chapter of the American Red Cross. Myers is shown with two volunteers, Sharon Roper, a registered nurse, and Ken Topliss.

As far as natural disasters go, 2011 delivered a wallop of destruction. In February, New Zealand’s South Island was rocked by an earthquake, and a month later Japan was hit with an 8.9-scale earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands.

Later in the year, the Southwest suffered a drought, while areas in North Dakota and the East Coast flooded. An earthquake followed by Hurricane Irene tore through homes and pried apart roads. Hundreds died and areas of cities were decimated after tornadoes ripped through the South in May.

As disasters ravaged homes and lives this year, the American Red Cross was dealing with a double whammy, sending out workers to provide shelter and comfort to victims, while in the midst of overhauling its organization, eliminating more than 1,500 jobs.

At the Western Slope Chapter, three full-time employee positions were eliminated and the organization has scaled back on its health and safety training.

“We needed to make sure that we were able to provide the money to donate it to clients when it was needed,” said Eric Myers, executive director of the Western Colorado chapter.

Without any other full-time paid staff members at the Western Colorado branch at 506 Gunnison Ave., the organization is going strong as it relies on volunteers, Myers said, because it has kept a solid base of volunteers.

The Western Colorado Chapter includes the counties of Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, San Miguel, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle. The Western Colorado Chapter has 76 volunteers, with 30 of those volunteers in Mesa County.

“One of the things we want to make sure the community knows is that we’re still here, we’re still providing,” Myers said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to downsize and rely heavily on volunteers. It’s reinvigorated our volunteer base.”

Volunteers are often on call 24 hours a day, but some of those days are busier than others. In a 24-hour period Dec. 8 through Dec. 9, workers responded to four incidents — house fires in Grand Junction, Rifle and Whitewater, and to residents of a home in Fruitvale who were the victims of a domestic incident in which all home’s windows were broken and the furnace was ripped out.

The local organization averages 55 to 60 responses a year. This year, workers in the local chapter have touched the lives of 87 clients.

A fire at an apartment complex in Basalt the night of Dec. 16 was one of the largest incidents for Red Cross workers in some time.

Twenty-one adults and 12 children, or 11 families, were displaced by the fire, said Rheta Strong, a Red Cross volunteer in Pitkin County.

Strong and six other Red Cross volunteers launched into action, most of them working 12 to 16 hours a day for days after the event. Red Cross met immediate needs such as housing and clothing, and workers have since helped coordinate with families to get into short-term and long-term housing.

Because of the magnitude of the fire, community members have rallied to provide free meals, clothing and assistance, Strong said.

“This has hit the community hard,” she said. “Having a disaster of this scope at this time of year is particularly heartbreaking.”

In most cases, the fire victims lost 90 percent to 100 percent of everything they owned, Strong said. One woman was beginning to give her baby a bath when the fire broke out and she was forced to evacuate with the child wrapped only in a towel.

Grand Junction-area volunteers Ken Topliss and Sharon Roper started their volunteer service because they wanted to help victims of disasters after seeing the effects of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina on the New Orleans area. Topliss had family members in the area who were affected by that devastation.

Since signing up as a volunteer, Topliss has been deployed to several disaster zones including fires in San Diego and to Texas to help the victims of Hurricane Ike.

“I don’t like seeing the disasters, but if you see somebody and can give them a hug and make them smile, it’s worth it,” he said.

Volunteers like Topliss and Roper help the organization run on a leaner budget because they bring their professional skills in as volunteers, Myers said. For example, Topliss works to maintain the organization’s vehicles and Roper, a registered nurse, ensures that volunteers are tasked with jobs they can physically handle.

“From March on, it was one disaster after another,” Myers said. “Though it was a busy time and there were cuts in every single chapter, it was the volunteers who stepped up and didn’t miss a beat.”

To donate to the American Red Cross or sign up to be a volunteer, call the Western Colorado Chapter at 242-4851.


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