Gearing for growth – Prevention a priority

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte metro area is growing quickly and the Greater Carolinas Chapter of the American Red Cross aims to keep pace — both in its emergency and its prevention services.

“We want people to know what to do in an emergency other than to call 911 and wait for the ambulance to get there,” says Joe Becker, the chapter’s executive director.

“Our mission wouldn’t be accomplished,” he says, “until our entire community knew how to prevent emergencies and respond to them when they do occur.”

Priorities for the chapter, which serves Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, include strengthening its transportation, education, disaster and blood services

The chapter also is gearing up to host the national convention of the American Red Cross next spring. And it’s turning to the Web to better market its services and looking for more space to house its operations.

Keeping up with the region’s growth is the toughest challenge, Becker says, because the growing population faces some basic needs.

A study last year of community needs, for example, identified 9,000 households with 14,000 people who have trouble getting medical care because they don’t have a way to travel to it.

The chapter this year will make 8,000 trips taking people on medical visits, up from 6,000 last year.

Providing transportation and other services, however, depends on finding and keeping volunteers, and that can be difficult, Becker says.

About 2,600 people a year volunteer for the chapter, a number that he hopes to double in five years. A consultant’s plan to increase volunteerism is due by the end of the year.

The chapter, which has seen its staff grow to 69 from 45 in three years, measures its work in big numbers. This year, for example, it will teach health education courses to 90,000 people, up from 60,000 three years ago.

Safety education also is a big priority, particularly a neighborhood-based fire-prevention program. Fernell Patterson, hired last year as the chapter’s family safety education specialist, heads a new three-year project targeting neighborhoods that have had a lot of residential fires.

In the 12 months through June 30, the Red Cross assisted 250 families that lost all or most of what they owned in house or apartment fires.

“We don’t just want to go out to house fires and respond to them,” says Stefanie Groot, the chapter’s public affairs manager. “We want to teach people and give them the tools to prevent them from happening.”

Providing area hospitals with more than 99 percent of the blood supply they use continues to be a big challenge for the chapter, which collected more than 46,000 units of blood in the 11 months that ended May 31.

In the second half of June, however, the chapter faced a blood shortage, with only 300 units on hand, or enough to last half a day. Typically, the chapter has about 1,800 units on hand, or enough for three days.

To help ensure an adequate supply, the chapter is part of an American Red Cross pilot project that uses a secure Web site to help donors schedule appointments to give blood.

Blood-drive coordinators at area employers communicate by email with potential donors, and use the Web to track how many donors have registered to give blood.

First Union and Solectron have agreed to let their employees participate in the pilot project, which also includes chapters in Arizona and Northeast Michigan.

To improve its overall marketing, the Charlotte chapter in December revamped its Web site, which now offers basic information about the Red Cross and soon will add other features.

Those features will include online schedules and pre-registration for health-education courses, and an online store selling first-aid kits, CPR masks and Red Cross apparel. This fall, the site also will let donors make contributions online.

The chapter will step into the national spotlight next spring, hosting American Red Cross national convention May 18-20 at the Charlotte Convention Center. Royal & SunAlliance is the main sponsor of the event, which is expected to attract more than 3,000 people.

In striving to keep up with the region’s growth, the chapter is having growth pains of its own and running out of the space it shares with the Carolinas Blood Services Region, a Red Cross agency that collects blood for 110 hospitals in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.

The chapter hopes initially to lease or buy nearby space, although it probably will need eventually to undertake a capital campaign to raise money for new facilities. That probably won’t happen for another year or two, Becker says.

“Sooner or later,” he says, “we’re going to have to step up to the plate and address our physical facilities needs.”

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