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Utah Red Cross: 100 years of helping

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No soldier should go off to war with out the well-wishes and support of his community, thought Emmeline B. Wells. And so in 1898, when two cavalry companies and three batteries of artillery were being sent from Utah to participate in the Spanish-American War, Wells headed a group of 100 women who responded to the call for volunteers. Utah's Red Cross unit was born.

The Auerbach Brothers donated space in the old Progress Building; sewing machines were borrowed from the Singer Sewing Machine Co. Chairs and tables were donated by Dinwoody Furniture Co., and the women went to work.

Each soldier left the state filled with sandwiches and cakes served by the volunteers and carrying a "comfort bag" containing socks and bandages. Shoes and blankets were also provided. And boxes of nurses' aprons, pajamas, pillow cases and hospital supplies were sent to 76-year-old Clara Barton, who was working in Cuba at the time.

The Red Cross itself was formed in 1862 by Jean Henri Dunant, a Swiss citizen who was touring Italy at the time of the Austro-Sardinian War. Dunant came across the field at Solferino the day after 40,000 men had been killed or wounded in battle. He organized a group of volunteers to help with the wounded and later proposed a neutral organization devoted to the care of the sick and wounded of all armies at war.

Clara Barton, who had earned a reputation as the "angel of the battlefield" during the Civil War brought the organization to the U.S. in 1881.

The actual charter for the Utah chapter of the Red Cross was issued May 15, 1898. "We think it is one of the oldest chapters west of the Mississippi," says current Utah Red Cross CEO Deborah S. Bayle. "A couple of California chapters also celebrate centennials this year, but we don't know of any older."

Since that first campaign to help the soldiers of the Spanish-American War, times have changed, programs have changed, needs have changed, but one thing has stayed the same: The basic premise of the Red Cross is still people helping people.

In its early days, the Red Cross was an organization for wars. And wars there were: Franco-Prussian, Spanish-American, Sino-Japanese, Boer War.

But it didn't take long for a body so dedicated to alleviating suffering to find other ways to do it. In 1881, victims of devastating forest fires in Michigan were helped, as were flood victims in Ohio in 1882 and 1884. By the time of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 in Pennsylvania, disaster relief operations were firmly established as a part of Red Cross activities in the U.S. - a notion that quickly spread across the globe.

When the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 rocked that part of the country, President Theodore Roosevelt designated the Red Cross as the official agency to provide relief.

But even disaster relief was not enough for the organization. In 1903, first-aid training was added. "A sudden disaster occurs, involving the loss of hundreds of lives in one spot, and the nation is stricken with horror . . . but the roll of death and disaster and much unnecessary suffering in our great industrial army is recorded in silence and without comment," noted the first superintendent of the first-aid department. "Day by day, men and women are being maimed and killed in our great industrial struggle and in the rush and hurry of our strenuous life. It is in the mitigation of the horror of this strife and of this struggle that the first-aid department of the Red Cross is to find its mission and its work."

In 1914, another important addition to the organization's work was added. Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, a young newspaperman from New England, was distressed by the rising toll of drowning deaths in the country and suggested that the Red Cross teach courses in swimming and water safety. He was recruited to set up the program, and known as the "amiable whale," he traveled the country to implement his ideas.

After the end of the Spanish-American War, Red Cross activity in Utah slacked off until the outbreak of another conflict: World War I. Once again soldiers leaving home and soldiers passing through were sent off to war with the aid and comfort and blessing of Red Cross volunteers. Word came from the front of the need for clothing and bandages, and Utah responded with boxes of clothing for suffering Belgians. Gauze rooms were set up throughout the city, and before it was over more than 2,000 workers prepared more than a million surgical dressings to be sent to the front.

One of the gauze rooms - and in fact the headquarters of the Red Cross chapter - was established in the Amelia Palace, lent to the cause by Silver Queen Susanna Bransford Emery Holmes.

The influenza epidemic of 1918 halted many war-related activities, but the Red Cross took over the vacant Judge Mercy Hospital, then owned by the Catholic Church, and set up an emergency center for flu patients.

After World War I, Red Cross activities shifted to ongoing safety training programs and disaster relief, a focus that continues.

In Utah, says Bayle, most disasters involve fires and weather-related phenomena such as floods and mudslides. The Red Cross was there in 1952 when heavy spring runoff from the mountains sent floods pouring into the valley. It was there for the Congress Hotel Fire in downtown Salt Lake City in 1977, and for the flooding problems of the 1980s. It was there last year for 81 local disasters affecting 470 people.

It was there for thousands more who took classes and received training as part of its health and safety programs, which have become as big a part of the agenda as disaster relief.

And yes, it was still there for men and women of the armed forces. "Providing service to military families in crisis is still a big part of what we do," says Bayle. "It's one of the least-known of our services, but a lot of work is involved." Say, for instance, someone comes in (as someone did) and says his brother is in Rwanda, and the family hasn't had any communication from him. "We can find the person, and let him know his family is trying to reach him, or get messages to the family that he is OK."

Major milestones, such as centennials, provide an opportunity to look at the past, to see the influences and forces that made an institution what it is. But they also provide a nice vantage point to look ahead.

What does Bayle see for the future of the Red Cross in Utah? More of the same response to emergencies, more of the help and assistance people require. But she also has one very important goal.

"This community is very unprepared for a major disaster," she says. "It's our goal to help prepare for catastrophic developments."

We sometimes laugh and joke about the "big one," but too few of us would be ready if it came, she says. "Salt Lake has the third highest risk for earthquake, yet all our hospitals are built right on the fault line."

The Salt Lake area has never suffered a major disaster, and that is both a blessing and a curse, says Bayle. "It's like wearing seat belts. You don't wear them if you've never been in an accident - but after, you do."

We need disaster plans, she says, and more people trained to respond. "Education is going to be a big goal for us for the next few years."

Funding, too, is always a challenge. The Red Cross, with total operating expenses last year of $1.9 million, is funded totally by local donations and contributions. "We don't get any money from the national office," says Bayle. Money comes from the United Way, from grants and legacies, from local fund raising and in-kind contributions.

And that doesn't count all the man-hours donated by more than 2,000 local volunteers.

"People in Utah have always been willing to serve, to help others," says Bayle. That was true when Emmeline B. Wells and her volunteers began to roll bandages for the Spanish-American War, and it's true today.

"We are very, very anxious to serve the community," says Bayle. "Our goal is to have everyone as safe from harm as they can possible be."

Probably no symbol around the world is as easily recognized and deeply revered as the Red Cross. Since the very beginning, the cross has stood for help, for compassion and caring in times of need. And if local Red Cross workers have anything to say about it, that will never change.