Rebecca Jordan, executive director of the Central South Carolina Chapter of the American Red Cross, had just returned from training for her new position when the historic flood of 2015 washed across Columbia. Quickly, her office on Bull Street became the headquarters for a thousand aid workers.
“That’s the beauty of being a part of the American Red Cross,” Rebecca says. “It’s that you had people deployed from all over the country to come help us.” Volunteers from the Midlands have recently returned the favor, assisting victims in the aftermath of hurricanes in the Gulf and wildfires in California and Colorado.
Community support is vital to ensure that the Red Cross is prepared to respond to disasters, both large and small. Benevolent groups of the Red Cross include the Clara Barton Society, the Humanitarian Circle, the Red Cross Leadership Society, and the Tiffany Circle Society of Women Leaders.
Ann Marie Stieritz serves as chair of the Central SC Chapter’s Tiffany Circle, a group of influential women who pledge $10,000 annually toward the Red Cross mission. Ann Marie says that while people tend to think of the Red Cross in terms of large-scale catastrophes like floods and hurricanes, the small disasters are no less important. “It touches people in everyday life,” she says. “Those are their own personal disasters, which are not going to make the headlines necessarily.” If a family loses their home and belongings as the result of a severe storm or fire, the Red Cross stands ready to help.
Across the state, the Red Cross responds to an average of six home fires per day, according to Benjamin Williamson, communications director of the American Red Cross Palmetto SC Region. “Those volunteers that are part of what we call the disaster action team respond to a call within two hours,” Ben says. Well-planned logistics ensure that disaster relief goes according to plan.
With more than 2,100 Red Cross volunteers across the state, the Central SC Chapter, part of the Palmetto SC Region, is one of the busiest. “We are in active, urgent need of volunteers,” Ben says, “so we would love to have anybody who is interested.”
Blood donations continue to be essential, particularly in the month of January, and the Red Cross has taken all necessary safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Make an appointment to insure appropriate social distancing. “We’re continuing both antibody testing and collecting convalescent plasma through January,” Ben says.
Because convalescent plasma may contain COVID-19 antibodies that can attack the virus, plasma donations from people who have recovered from a diagnosed case of COVID-19 are urgently needed. Meanwhile, training classes for disaster action teams and first-aid responders are being held online during the pandemic.
The Red Cross honors donor intent for monetary contributions of any amount, with 90 percent of Red Cross donations going to programming. Large-scale disasters tend to inspire surges in giving, but the Red Cross wants to be able to render aid during the small crises as well. “That’s part of Tiffany Circle’s focus,” Ben says. “That longer-term commitment helps ensure the base of support is there for those circumstances.”
Ann Marie first discovered her passion for the Red Cross when she served as a counselor in a youth summer camp. Years later, Charlotte Berry and Rachel Hodges, both Tiffany Circle members, invited her to join the Red Cross board. “I served a couple of terms and gave my financial contribution as I felt was appropriate as a board member, and then, as I really started looking at the mission and getting engaged much, much more, I thought, this is a place where I’d like to make a bigger commitment.” She decided to join the Tiffany Circle, ultimately upgrading her contribution to a 10-year commitment honoring the Tiffany Circle’s founder, Bonnie Hunter-McElveen. Now, Ann Marie serves as a member of the National Board of the Tiffany Circle. In South Carolina, 60 women are members of the Tiffany Circle — 16 of those are in the Central SC region.
Ever since Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881, women have played an integral role in the Red Cross mission. Ann Marie points out that, especially in the local chapter of the Tiffany Circle, service to the Armed Forces remains a primary concern. The Tiffany Circle is named for stained glass windows of the American Red Cross’ national headquarters. The windows were commissioned, in a gesture of reconciliation, by the Women’s Relief Corps of the North and the United Daughters of the Confederacy of the South in 1917.
“I think that’s so emblematic of the idea of the principles of the Red Cross,” says Ann Marie. “It’s an idea of providing hope and a commitment to humanity.” The Red Cross, Ann Marie notes, is the organization that nobody ever thinks they are going to need. “But if you were the one who needed it, how gratifying and reassuring to know that there is someone there, whether that’s a house fire in Forest Acres or the wildfires in the Western United States, or the hurricanes and the floods we’ve had here. No one anticipated being in the circumstances in which they found themselves, but the Red Cross was there. Nobody does what the Red Cross does, and I think that’s crucial.”
Meeting virtually for much of 2020, members of the Tiffany Circle have devised creative ways to maintain their esprit de corps. Ann Marie says, “It isn’t just writing a check, and then you’re not involved. It really is a community of women leaders who come together around different mission-specific purposes.” Many women put boots on the ground to meet with families affected by personal disasters, and Ann Marie says the volunteers are deeply affected on a personal level.
In October, the Tiffany Circle met online to discuss Jane Healey’s historical novel The Beantown Girls about three women who volunteer with the Red Cross during World War II. The author of the book joined the meeting and shared the history of the real-life characters, explaining why their story has gone largely untold. “And it’s great, because you really do feel like you’re a part of that legacy,” Ann Marie says. “You get a sense of just that continuum and how meaningful it is, how important it is that it continue to be there.”
In addition to disaster relief, training classes, and Armed Services support, the Central SC Red Cross headquarters also serves as a blood donor center; satellite offices are in Aiken and Sumter and at Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base. The Central SC Red Cross also focuses on educational and fire safety programs, which have led to the state’s leading the nation in lives saved as the result of early intervention.
Since 2014, South Carolina has documented 76 lives saved because of fire safety programs, a number that is 10 percent of lives saved nationwide. Red Cross volunteers work with fire department personnel to provide working smoke detectors in homes.
Lives have also been saved because of blood and platelet donations. One young man with sickle cell disease has survived because of blood donations. A woman with Crohn’s disease recovered after having blood transfusions, and others with cancer have been aided by platelet donations.
“We supply 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply. We’re the primary provider for all the hospitals in the central footprint,” says Rebecca. Because blood products have a limited shelf life, it is essential to replenish the supply regularly.
One lesson that Red Cross staff and volunteers can teach Midlands citizens is how to be prepared for whatever might come. “We plan every single day,” says Rebecca. When hurricanes are in the weather forecast, for instance, many people doubt that they will be affected. The Red Cross, however, makes plans as though the hurricane will come right through the center of the state.
The Tiffany Circle helps prepare supplies for an educational program called the Pillowcase Project, aimed at third, fourth, and fifth graders. “After Hurricane Katrina,” Rebecca says, “a lot of the students were fleeing their homes and evacuating and throwing everything they owned into a pillowcase. So, it’s a way that we work with students to have them think about what things would be important if they had to go to a shelter.” The idea, she says, is to start a dialogue among families so that they have a plan in case if it becomes necessary to leave their homes suddenly.
Ben notes, “Members of the Tiffany Circle, in a way, are like silent heroes, because the biggest thing we need are volunteers and the funding to be able to send these volunteers … We need to be able to feed people in our shelters and provide them with clean-up kits to begin with their recovery. Without volunteers and without donors, it does not happen.”
“Every donation matters,” Rebecca adds. “We are lucky to have such a remarkable group of women who are so philanthropic, but everybody can make a donation. Everything counts.”
“Not only Tiffany Circle members, but all of our volunteers, they’re fierce advocates of our work,” Ben says. “They want to be involved. They want to meet these folks. They want to help.”