Friday, March 15, 2013

What a Coincidence: Red Cross Month is also Women's History Month

Since Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881, women’s history and Red Cross history have been closely intertwined. While the organization has historically benefitted from women’s contributions of both time and resources, the Red Cross is now redoubling its efforts to draw female volunteers who are now empowered in more ways than ever to further the organization’s mission. Lori Geres, Regional Director of Volunteer Services for the Mile High Chapter, shared with me some of the important ways women have been a part of the Red Cross throughout the past two centuries, and how a new task force is working to engage with women today, with an eye to the future.

Clara Barton, nurse and Founder of the American Red Cross

When the American Red Cross was established, Clara Barton’s background as an army nurse set the stage for the organization’s close ties to both the nursing and military communities in the U.S. Red Cross nurses played important roles during the Spanish American War and have been a presence in American military engagements since the organization’s inception. Red Cross nurses also provided services during the 1918 influenza epidemic. According to Geres, one of the most significant figures in the long history of Red Cross nursing was Jane Delano, who recruited over 20,000 nurses during World War I. For her efforts in the war, Delano was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. The Red Cross now gives the Jane Delano scholarship to student nurses in her memory.

Women without nursing training have also been a dedicated volunteer force in Red Cross history, rolling bandages during World War I and forming the “Gray Ladies” hospital volunteer group during World War II. The Gray Ladies offered non-medical services to civilian patients and disaster victims for more than six decades. Later, women volunteered as “Donut Dollies” and served in country in Korea and Vietnam. These volunteers organized activities, spent time among service members and as Geres said, served as “a friendly face to talk to” for soldiers deployed overseas.

Today, women in the American Red Cross volunteer their time and efforts in a variety of capacities: including transportation services to the elderly, training future babysitters, and offering professional help as licensed social workers. But as Geres said, “Women have always been a part of the Red Cross,” she said, “Now, more than ever, more avenues are open to them.” Geres sits on a task force called “Engaging Women with the Red Cross,” which is specifically aimed at getting more women engaged with the organization’s goals of preparedness. “We’re focused on what women can do to prepare their families, their communities and their country for any emergency,” she said. With initiatives like this, women will continue to make history with the Red Cross in the years to come.

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