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The local Red Cross a year later

August 28, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

How big a change did the events of last Sept. 11 make in your life?

Not as big, I'd bet, as they did in the lives of Julie Barr-Strasburg and her associates. For Barr-Strasburg, executive director of the Washington County Red Cross, the terrorist attacks were the beginning of a three-month ride on an emotional roller-coaster.

Just as older people remember what they were doing when they heard about the Pearl Harbor attack, Barr-Strasburg remembers Sept. 11 in great detail.

"I was sitting right here at my desk when Bobbi (Schnebly) came running in and said 'a plane's hit the World Trade Center,' " she said.

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They turned on the TV and watched in horror as the second plane hit.

"We looked at each other and I said, 'Our country's at war. We need to go into disaster mode.' Within an hour-and-a-half it started," she said.

Barr-Strasburg and her staff had to deal with an avalanche of calls - people volunteering to help and others just wanting to know what was going on. As the days went by, citizens who wanted to donate blood overwhelmed the system, leading to hard feelings at collection sites when people who'd turned out were told the agency had taken all it could handle that day.

"During that time, a lot of our chapter programs were put on hold and part of what went on the shelf was our capital campaign," she said.

The agency has outgrown its Hagerstown center on South Prospect Street, which Barr-Strasburg said isn't big enough for training sessions or to accommodate all those who want to volunteer. To cope, Red Cross plans to build a new headquarters and blood-donation center on land off Eastern Boulevard.

The new building could also serve as an emergency shelter and command center during disasters, she said, adding that the project is about eight months behind schedule.

But the events of Sept. 11 did more than push back the building schedule, she said. Because much of the money that would have been donated locally went directly to the New York and Washington, D.C., relief efforts - and because the stock market's dip cut the agency's investment earnings - the local chapter finished fiscal year 2001-2002 with a $20,000 deficit.

And because there has been controversy about the distribution of some national funds - and some problems with other Red Cross chapters - Barr-Strasburg said she's spent much time during the past eight months defending the local chapter and its good works.

To those who do have questions or criticisms, she offers to sit down, open up the books and demonstrate how the agency is being a good steward of donated money.

Barr-Strasburg also notes with pride that while the Greater Alleghenies Region of Red Cross was 40,000 units below its goal in the last fiscal year, the Washington County chapter was up by 7 percent.

At 252 bloodmobile visits last year, 11,200 people came out to give blood, donating 9,300 units of blood, she said.

She attributes that to the fact that agency volunteers have gotten out the word that donors aren't giving blood to the agency, but so it will be there if their neighbors, friends and relatives need it.

In what seems like a scary fact, Barr-Strasburg said there is now less than half a day's supply of most blood types on hand.

Last year when we talked, I asked Barr-Strasburg why donated blood couldn't be frozen. She said then the process for doing so was expensive and required equipment most hospitals didn't have to thaw it out. And when thawed, it had to be used within 24 hours. A manufacturer is now working on a process to thaw blood so it can be used for up to 14 days, she said.

If, heaven forbid, another attack happens, Barr-Strasburg said Red Cross has improved its data base so that it can identify more volunteers with specific skills, like paramedics or counselors. Such volunteers need to be screened in advance, she said, to avoid confusion at disaster scenes.

And two years before Sept. 11, Barr-Strasburg said, the national Red Cross built the Clara Barton Center for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Arkansas to train people on how to respond to such attacks.

Working with the Washington County Health Department and Department of Social Services, the Red Cross will be able to run shelters, each with its own nurse and a Social Services caseworker to manage it, she said.

On Sept. 11 of this year, Barr-Strasburg said that the agency will have a quiet memorial service at its office at 113 S. Prospect St. After that, she said, there will be two mental health professionals on the premises if anyone wants to talk, with no appointments needed.

It's been tough at times, but Barr-Strasburg said what keeps her and everyone in the agency going is the small success stories they hear - from the person whose relative got blood, from someone who got aid after their house burned down or the family whose relative was located in the armed forces.

If you'd like to volunteer or get a questionnaire to fill out for blood donations, call the office at (301) 739-0717.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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