The American Red Cross – an iconic symbol recognized around the world as a sign of help and humanity – is celebrating its 100th year in Ventura County.
The majority of Americans, however, are only familiar with a portion of the tremendous work of this nonprofit organization.
“Most people think they know what we do, like hosting blood drives and responding to major natural disasters, but there’s so much more to this incredible organization,” said Kimberly Coley, executive director of the American Red Cross of Ventura County.
The international organization has existed for more than 150 years and was founded on the basis of seven principles: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.
These principals — and the continued work of the Red Cross — are just as important today as they were in 1917 when Ventura County received its local charter.
“Our presence in communities is a testament to the relevance of our work and our ability to endure through the times,” Coley said. “Because we aspire to turn compassion into action every single day, we’ve been able to rally support across decades to assist those in need.”
People come to the Red Cross for a variety of reasons. Some need help while others want to volunteer their time, resources or expertise.
“But no matter how folks come to the organization, they all leave the same exact way — changed for the better,” Coley said.
Many people don’t think about the Red Cross until they’re in dire need, she added.
“But when you’re having the worst day of your life, we’ll be there,” she said. “That’s what we do.”
Flashback to 1917
The local Red Cross was officially chartered in 1917 — the year the United States entered World War I.
“Membership exploded as local residents wanted to aid in the war effort,” Coley said.
The local Red Cross has provided assistance to military families during every U.S. war since.
For instance, in 1950 during the Korean War, local Red Cross Home Service volunteers supported 6,000 troops at Camp Cooke, now known as Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The American Red Cross of Ventura County wouldn’t have been possible without Red Cross founder Clara Barton. She was a teacher, self-taught nurse, humanitarian, lobbyist, writer, philanthropist and volunteer during the Civil War.
“Clara Barton was an incredible woman,” said Coley, underscoring the fact that Clara was a teacher when women weren’t entering the male-dominated field.
“She founded the American Red Cross at age 60 — can you imagine?” Coley said.
“She was known as the ‘Angel of the Battlefield’ where she provided aid to wounded soldiers, paving the road for a future of volunteer service,” Coley said. “Because of this, service to local military families is a cornerstone of the Red Cross, and the foundation of our history.”
To this day, Red Cross volunteers support military families through emergency communications, veteran care programs and reconnection workshops.
“It’s an honor for us to serve those that serve our country,” Coley said.
Local daily efforts
Every day, the Red Cross responds to single-family home fires and educates the community about the importance of emergency preparedness in Ventura County. The Red Cross also teaches critical CPR and first aid skills and collects lifesaving blood.
“And while these programs and services won’t always make the headlines, for the individual or family involved, the care and resources they receive are priceless,” Coley said.
One Red Cross initiative that most people are unaware of is the Home Fire Preparedness Campaign.
“In Ventura County alone, we respond to at least one home fire a week,” Coley said.
To that end, the Red Cross is working hard to educate the community to alleviate these fires, which can be devastating to the victims.
“While these single-family home fires are the most common disaster facing Americans, they’re also the most preventable,” Coley said.
For instance, having working smoke alarms in your home cuts the risk of death by 50 percent.
“Did you know that seven times a day someone dies in a home fire, and every 40 minutes a fire-related injury is reported?” Coley asked.
She noted that the Red Cross conducted a survey that asked participants: “How long do you think you have to get out of your home if there were to be a fire?”
“Seventy-five percent of them said five minutes or more, and the true answer is two minutes or less,” Coley said.
“Most people think we have all the time in the world to gather our belongings — we don’t,” she said. “That’s why we’re going into the community, installing free smoke alarms and educating our friends and neighbors on the importance of having a plan, having a kit and being ready to get out when the time comes.”
In 2014, the Red Cross of Ventura County became part of the nationwide effort to reduce death and injuries due to home fires through the home fire campaign. Through this effort, volunteers canvass Ventura neighborhoods to install free smoke alarms and educate families on the importance of fire safety.
St. Francis Dam collapse, La Conchita landslide
In 1928, 12.4 billion gallons of water devastated Ventura County when the St. Francis Dam collapsed, making it the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake ranks No. 1, responsible for the deaths of between 3,000 and 6,000 people.
“Our local Red Cross responded to help the injured and provide hot meals,” Coley said.
In 2005, the Red Cross responded to the La Conchita landslide, which destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, killing 10 residents.
“Local volunteers were on hand to provide lodging, meals, health services and comfort,” Coley said.
Lifeblood of the Red Cross
Last year alone, more than 700 Ventura County volunteers donated over 17,000 hours to serve their community.
“Locally, 98 percent of our organization is led by volunteers,” Coley said.
They provided relief to 63 families affected by local disasters and trained nearly 8,500 people with lifesaving emergency skills. Volunteers also installed more than 1,300 free smoke alarms, and assisted 143 military families with emergency communication messages.
“Our volunteers represent the heartbeat of our organization,” Coley said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here today helping neighbors and friends prevent, prepare for and respond to life’s emergencies, both big and small.”
The American Red Cross of Ventura County is always in need of additional support, she further emphasized.
“With so many Red Cross programs and services being delivered in Ventura County, we’re always looking for more volunteers to lead and advocate on our behalf,” Coley said.
A volunteer for 60-plus years
In August of 1956, when Michael Ewens was a senior in high school, his mother and grandmother had served the Red Cross in World War II, making bandages.
“My grandma was a pharmacist and my mom was a microbiologist,” recalled Ewens, who lives in Ventura. “During World War II they would make bandages for the soldiers, and eventually I started helping them.”
That marked the beginning of Ewens’ long-time involvement as a Red Cross volunteer, which has included teaching CPR and disaster courses for more than five decades.
Additionally, when he was stationed in Germany with the Army during Vietnam, he helped run refugee camps. He also assisted Kuwaiti refugees in Desert Storm by overseeing the camps and maintaining medical standards.
“I helped with major disasters from floods in North Dakota to tornadoes in Kansas, and forest fires in New Mexico and Colorado,” Ewens said.
He also ran the largest shelter in Hurricane Katrina, with 18,000 residents passing through the doors.
“I had the honor of briefing Presidents (George) Bush Sr. and 9Bill) Clinton at Red Cross shelters,” Ewens remembered. “Clinton stayed at our shelter for hours while I showed him around and he spoke with the residents. He was really drawn by it.”
Each and every volunteer experience has enhanced his support of the Red Cross and further strengthened his bonds with the organization.
“I see the good that comes from all of the work that the Red Crossers do,” Ewens said.
There are no other organizations that really respond when families are in distress, he noted.
“We’ve responded to apartment fires in Santa Paula where more than 20 people are made homeless, and you make sure they’re OK,” Ewens said. “Whether it’s a Seabee at Port Hueneme, an aviation sailor at Point Mugu or a family that needs help, the Red Cross is an organization that’s able to respond immediately.”
Looking back on his volunteerism with the organization, he said he is proud to be able to assist the Ventura County community through the Red Cross.
“You look for ways that you feel are the best way to support your community, and I feel that the Red Cross rises to the best as an organization that helps our community.”
Red Cross client becomes dedicated volunteer
Logan Weaver, who served in the Navy for about 20 years, received help from the Red Cross during his service before he joined the volunteer ranks of the organization.
The Camarillo man was a recipient of the Red Cross’ Emergency Communication Services, in which the organization keeps military personnel in touch with their families following the death or serious illness of a family member.
In Weaver’s case, his father had a heart attack in the year 2000. At the time, Weaver was already aboard a Navy ship headed to Hawaii when he received the emergency message from the Red Cross that his father was gravely ill. And within a matter of hours, Weaver was placed on a helicopter to go home to be at his father’s side.
Without that Red Cross message, “I wouldn’t have been able to get that (helicopter) ride out,” Weaver said.
Today — as a Navy veteran — Weaver is paying it forward by helping the Red Cross set up shelters during disasters.
“The Red Cross is a blessing,” he said. “I’m able to give back, and I’m able to pay forward all at the same time.”
The next 100 years
A lot of people mistakenly think that the Red Cross is a government organization, Coley said.
“In reality, we are a nonprofit that relies heavily on the public support of our community,” she said. “Because of that, we are especially grateful for our donors — donors of time, donors of money and donors of blood, of course.”
There will always be a need for the American Red Cross of Ventura County.
For the family affected by the home fire, Red Cross volunteers are there to wrap blankets around their shoulders, offer drinks and snacks, make sure the family has somewhere to go — and help them take the next steps toward recovery.
For the patient who is in need of a lifesaving transfusion, the Red Cross collects and distributes blood to hospitals almost as quickly as donations come in.
For the deployed service members whose families are experiencing crises, the Red Cross will deliver verified messages to better connect them with their loved ones back at home.
“Because of our amazing volunteers, we’re here building a stronger, more resilient Ventura County,” Coley said.
It’s an exciting time to join the Red Cross family, she added.
“We invite you to come alongside us as we pave the road for our next 100 years,” Coley said. “Sign up to become a volunteer, make a donation, give the gift of lifesaving blood or share your own Red Cross story.”
For more information or to get involved, visit www.redcross.org or call the Camarillo office at 987-1514.