Volunteers Stepping Up For Local Red Cross Chapters

Dec 10, 2013

Credit Mike Moen/WNIJ

Local Red Cross chapters are finding ways to survive lean times. The branch that serves several northern Illinois counties is no exception. The agency is now asking volunteers to do more to make sure it’s ready in the event of a crisis.

Picture this: you’re the executive director of a disaster relief chapter that serves 400,000 people. You have a lot on your plate. But it doesn’t end with overseeing response efforts and other management duties. You sometimes have to clean the bathrooms and shovel snow outside the building.

Those are some of the responsibilities that fall into the lap of Lisa LaSala, who runs the American Red Cross Rock River Chapter, which covers Winnebago, Boone, Ogle and Lee Counties.

“We want to be good stewards of the dollars that are donated and make sure they go to the people. So I think the biggest change is that we rely on volunteers more than ever,” LaSala said.

And when volunteers aren’t available to help with typical office duties, LaSala and her small staff take on those chores. But it doesn’t seem to bother them. The Rock River Chapter has embraced the idea of running a bare-bones operation.

"In this chapter, there are 15 staff. And now we have four," LaSala said.

The chapter recently carried out the restructuring to make sure donations weren't getting soaked up by overhead costs. And LaSala says it wasn't simply a strategic decision. Donations have been down. With the moves, the office has been able to eliminate a large chunk of its $500,000 debt backlog. LaSala says without this approach, they probably wouldn't be open.

Other Red Cross chapters have taken similar steps. In the wake of the recession, some of the budget problems were too much for some offices, which either closed or consolidated. The national chapter has carried out similar cost-cutting measures as well. Jim Starr is Vice President of Humanitarian Services for the national office. 

"There is an enterprise-wide strategy to increase the engagement of volunteers in all aspects of the work of our local chapters. Like any organization, we have to be mindful of our expense budgets and things of that nature," Starr said.

And, while volunteers are being asked to do more around the office, their level of responsibility in the field is growing as well. Starr says it comes from enhanced training. He says part of it is aimed at creating bigger roles for local volunteers when there is a major disaster in their region.

"One of the ways that allows us to do that is to build leadership strength in particular skill-sets so that we can reduce the number of people we have to fly in from across the country to help in a disaster relief operation," Starr said.

Local volunteer Mindy Wing has taken on those kinds of roles since joining the Rock River Chapter a few years ago. She recently returned from assisting with relief efforts in tornado-ravaged Washington, Illinois. She also led disaster assessment teams during the spring floods.

Even though the organization is leaning more on volunteers these days, Wing says that doesn’t mean services aren’t being met. Local chapters can seek out financial assistance from the national office, if needed. She says that’s especially important, because they’re still doing things like running blood drives and helping families after a house fire. And when they're deployed, they can still assist victims in many ways.

"We're contacting insurance, and if they've lost all their medication in the fire, we're contacting the doctor and the pharmacies," Wing said.

And, Wing says, while they don't hope for a tragedy to occur, they will continue planning and training to be sure newly constructed staffs are ready to help.