Kalamazoo’s Red Cross is marking 100 years of service with a renewed look at its mission, thanks to veteran volunteers, and new ones. According to its website, the American Red Cross of Southwest Michigan includes eight counties: Allegan, Van Buren, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, St. Joseph and Branch. It was founded in 1917 as part of a national campaign to boost the Red Cross’ volunteer efforts during the First World War. The local office is now near West Michigan Avenue and 11th Street.
“We have a presentation each month about things I didn’t know we did,” said Red Cross volunteer Whitney Kemerling of Kalamazoo, an attorney and board member.
Vicki Eichstaedt, a long-time volunteer and west Michigan native, said she got her start with the Red Cross in 2005, joining the relief effort for victims of Hurricane Katrina. She learned how to feed hundreds of people, provide shelter and even consider their state of mind, after they have seen their homes and possessions washed away. It’s a skill set she brought back to Michigan, as local Red Cross volunteers supported Katrina evacuees at Fort Custer in Battle Creek. They were also on hand after the 1980 tornado that struck the heart of downtown Kalamazoo and killed five. “There’s a lot more to helping than just wanting to,” Eichstaedt said. “I know at the end of the day, my efforts have really gone to help someone who’s suffering.”
Helping others has been a lifetime goal for Betty Lee Ongley, a past chair of the local Red Cross and a volunteer since 1950. “I got started with the blood drives,” she said. “I took the streetcar in Detroit down to give blood. Then I was a volunteer when I moved to Kalamazoo. Ongley said as an administrator and a participant in activities like teaching first aid and providing supplies to disaster victims, she’s glad to see how the Red Cross coordinates with local police and fire fighters to handle area emergencies. She’s still paying close attention to the ongoing Flint water crisis, as the Michigan Red Cross contributed to the relief efforts there.
In recent years, the Red Cross has cut back on its paid staff, and is turning to more volunteers, said Linda Kaminski of Portage, who is a parttime receptionist for the Red Cross of Southwest Michigan. Paid or not, everyone involved with the Red Cross is there because they want to help.
“They have a good, positive attitude that rubbed off on the rest of us,” she said.
Kaminski said the part she’s enjoyed most, after four years of volunteering, is meeting people — other volunteers, and the community members the Red Cross helps.“We take veterans to the (Veterans Administration) offices for their appointments,” she said. “I work on blood donations at schools, and I like talking to the kids — when they get off their phones.”
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