When an apartment fire in Ashburn two weeks ago displaced families from nine apartments, Loudoun’s longest serving human services organization did what it does best.
As fire and rescue crews from 10 different stations fought the blaze that climbed up the two-story Brae Terrace apartment complex, volunteers from the local chapter of American Red Cross hurried to the scene and got to work. They gave five families gift cards and other financial assistance to cover three nights in a hotel, as well as new clothes, food and prescription medications that had been lost in the fire. They delivered stuffed animals for the parents to give to their children, offered ongoing mental health support and help coordinating with insurance companies.
That’s a glimpse of what Red Cross, fueled by volunteers and donations, has done in Loudoun County now for 100 years.
“It’s filling a tremendous role for a family when they are having the worst day of their life,” Loudoun Fire-Rescue Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. said of Red Cross’ work in the county.
March 9 will mark a full century of Red Cross’ service in Loudoun. The organization will host A Century of Service celebration that evening at the Ashburn Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department (see details below). Over the decades, the organization has become one of the first emergency responders call when people need help beyond the immediate tragedy. But it also offers regular support to military families, runs blood drives and provides low-cost CPR, first aid and babysitter training.
Erwin Stierle, executive director of American Red Cross for Loudoun and Prince William counties, sees the centennial anniversary as a chance to highlight all that Red Cross staff and volunteers do to help their neighbors. Too often people think the organization only steps in during national and global disasters, he said. “But we’re here, supporting local families every day. For me, this event is really a chance to bring back the community aspect of Red Cross, so that our community knows that we’re here.”
In the past year, the Red Cross in Loudoun has collected 2,000 units of blood—enough to save 6,000 lives, Stierle said. It also trained 2,600 people in lifesaving skills, including CPR, first aid, aquatics and babysitter training; responded to 16 disasters to help 48 Loudoun residents; and worked with 120 military families.
Red Cross reorganized its Northern Virginia chapters in 2009, shifting oversight to a regional board of directors and turning what was once a Loudoun County board of directors into an advisory council. Local operations, now running out of the Loudoun Cares facility on South King Street in Leesburg, fall under the umbrella of the National Capital Region.
The changes left many thinking that Red Cross was no longer directly serving Loudoun.
But Carol Barbe, Red Cross’ former executive director who now serves on its Loudoun County Leadership Council, wants the community to know that they’re here to help. “The Red Cross is still very much in Loudoun. It’s your friends, your neighbors, your family. They never left.”
A History of Service
Stierle and Barbe flipped through newspaper clippings and historic documents earlier this week to reflect on the organization’s highlights in the past century. Red Cross’ Loudoun County chapter provided 71 units of blood for victims of the 1983 Flight 90 plane crash in to the Potomac River. They also offered myriad services for those injured in the 9/11 Pentagon attack.
One of the efforts that Barbe is most proud of came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More than 500 displaced Louisiana residents made their way here. The Red Cross’ Loudoun chapter made sure they had hotel rooms, new clothes and food, and it also put 200 spontaneous volunteers, moved by the pictures of the ravaged communities, through crash-course training so they could lend a hand.
“We did all that out of our little South King Street office,” Barbe said.
Chief Brower remembers the Red Cross’ role in helping residents of Sommerset Retirement Community in the early 1990s after a fire displaced nearly every one of them. Firefighters fought the fire for seven to eight hours in record-low temperatures, hovering around 10 degrees. Red Cross volunteers helped take residents across the street to Sully Elementary School out of harm’s way. Working alongside the county’s Office of Emergency Management, they met their immediate needs for food and shelter, and then worked with them to restore what they could of what was lost in the fire.
“There was a coordinated effort to get those people relocated,” Brower said. “There’s really a number of incidents, whether small or large, where they have been a vital player over the years.”
More recently, the Red Cross has partnered with area fire departments to make sure every household in the county has working smoke alarms. Lisa Braun, Loudoun’s public education manager, trains the organization’s volunteers to correctly install the alarms. On Feb. 11, for Martin Luther King Day of Service, a team of Red Cross volunteers visited 235 homes and installed 80 smoke alarms.
“That’s significant,” Brower said.
“The key here is everything that we do is built on partnerships,” said Kevin Johnson, Loudoun’s coordinator of emergency management, who works closely with Red Cross. “The Red Cross has been a tremendous partner of Loudoun Fire-Rescue, as well as the Office of Emergency Management, for decades. And it’s because of the excellent service they provide.”
As Stierle reflects on Red Cross’ past work, he also wants to raise the next generation of volunteers. He is working with Loudoun schools to establish student-run Red Cross clubs, that could host blood drives, fundraise, and collect items for neighbors in need. “Ultimately, I’d love to see every middle and high school in Loudoun have some sort of Red Cross club,” he said. “It’s sort of community helping community.”
His hope is to pass on the joy and sense of purpose that he feels working for one of the world’s most impactful service organizations. Stierle came to Red Cross in 2011 after a job in sales. He called the Red Cross’ interview process one of the most intensive experiences he’s ever endured and he was ecstatic when he got the job offer.
“I love this work. I love having that connection to the community,” he said. “The best part of it is working and coordinating with our volunteers, knowing that I’ve helped in some way, like setting up a blood drive. That blood literally helps save somebody’s life. That’s incredible.”
Barbe encourages people to support the Red Cross in any way that they can, whether they donate blood or money, or give of their time. “It’s our donors and our volunteers that are the heart of the Red Cross,” she said, and quoted the organization’s motto, “Get to know us before you need us.”
American Red Cross invites the public to its free celebration, A Century of Service, from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 9, at the Ashburn Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, 20688 Ashburn Road. Attendees can visit stations that showcase each of the Red Cross’ lines of service. The event’s sponsors include BlackFinn Ameripub, Giant in Potomac Station, Paul Davis Restoration, The Fitness Equation, and Wegmans in Leesburg. RSVP for the event here.