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Red Cross service still being questioned
August 16, 2012 Jerry Purvis   

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In late October 2011, the American Red Cross closed its Greater Panhandle Chapter office in Scottsbluff in order to cut costs, and officials said there would be no reduction in services. But several former board members are still wondering whether that’s true.

Former board chairman Rick Tuggle said the local chapter’s strength was in it was local people helping their neighbors. Because of that local connection, the chapter was able to turn around a large deficit to the point when they were not only covering their own expenses, but also sending funds back to the National Red Cross.
“The volunteers and the donors and the board are all local and so are the people we assist,” Tuggle said. “That made a great connection and we raised a lot of money and really turned things around.”

But since the local chapter was closed, Tuggle said there’s been a disconnect between the donor and the recipient. “There’s no way they have as many funds coming from the donors as they did before in this area,” he said. “I know several people who said they gave to the Red Cross local chapter because they knew the board would be good stewards of the money.”

The Central Plains Chapter of the American Red Cross, based in Grand Island, is now supervising the western end of the state. Executives in that office have assured the community there will still be a Red Cross presence in the Panhandle area and that services are being provided in a more cost-effective manner.

But following a recent apartment fire that left many residents on the street, local police transported them to motel rooms before a Red Cross coordinator could arrive from North Platte.
Tuggle said that when the Greater Nebraska Chapter was operating, they had a network of shelters where disaster victims could be housed without the added expense of motel rooms.

“When you concentrate assets and support and volunteers in larger cities, it’s just harder logistically to get help out to the rural areas, especially if your volunteer base shrinks,” he said. “It was even hard for us to operate a branch office in Alliance and keep volunteers engaged.”

Although the local area has been assured of sufficient number of volunteers to handle an emergency, former board member Judy Amoo is still uncertain. “I have no idea where the volunteers are coming from or if we even have an active volunteer base left,” she said. “If we have an emergency, who’s answering the phone when people call for help?”

Former Panhandle chapter executive director Jann Rouzee said the public should be entitled to some answers about the new operation. “The Grand Island chapter should produce some numbers as to cost-efficiency,” she said. “Where are those dollars being spent? Are donations from here going to assist people out here? Right now, we don’t know.”

Amoo said she’d also like to see some of the numbers. The Grand Island chapter said they spent approximately $15,000 to serve 95 people in 24 incidents in the Panhandle. Most of the requests for service were related to fires.

“I’d like to see where the $15,000 was actually spent and how long it took volunteers to come here,” Amoo said. “What they’re saying about the cost savings of closing our chapter might not be accurate if they’re bringing in volunteers from outside the area.”

With the loss of the local chapter came the loss of a personal relationship with the community. Rouzee said she spent numerous hours telling the Red Cross story to local service groups, one-on-one meetings and even in donors’ homes.

When the chapter used to conduct fundraising events, one of the big concerns among donors was that the funds stay in the local community to help local people in need.

The United Way of Western Nebraska, which also supported the local Red Cross chapter, dropped the office from its support list last November because there was no longer a guarantee the money would stay in the community.

One of the last meetings of the local chapter, which included representatives from the Grand Island and Omaha chapters, touched on that issue.

“They really underestimated the importance of local funding,” Amoo said. “They asked whether it really mattered to the people in the Panhandle where their donations are actually spent when they give money to the Red Cross. ‘Yes’ was our resounding answer.”
Rouzee said the entire Red Cross organization was built around neighbors helping neighbors. That went away when the local chapter was closed. Another loss was the availability of many Red Cross services, such as lifeguard, babysitter and CPR training, among others.

Amoo said she was also unhappy with the way the closing of the local chapter was handled. Rouzee was notified that executives would arrive the next day to conduct her performance review and merit-based pay increase. Instead, she was told to clean out her desk and was escorted from the building, as the position was being eliminated. There was no thought to informing donors about the move or of closing up the office properly.

“It was a horrible situation that took place and an injustice to Jann,” Amoo said. “It makes me wonder what the public’s perception of the Red Cross after they saw that happen.”

She added the Panhandle chapter was the only one that was closed in that manner. Other chapter directors were given notice and allowed to be in their office while the closure was ongoing.

“There was a spin from the corporate office about what actually took place here,” Amoo said. “I think the public, who in good faith donated to the local chapter, need to know what happened. They’re trying to say nothing will change about all we’ve built up, but they need to prove it.”

Rouzee said she still supports the Red Cross mission. However, the closure of the Greater Nebraska Panhandle Chapter made no sense, given the success they’ve had in meeting local needs through local people.

The local chapter’s website has since been taken down and the web address redirects people to national headquarters of the American Red Cross. Likewise, the local phone number now rings in Grand Island. And Amoo said the last time she went by the Red Cross office at Regional West Medical Center, it was still closed. A maintenance person told her no one had been there for some time. And the advertised position for a part-time office manger has yet to be filled.

“We’ve been living with this injustice for almost a year,” Amoo said, “but right now we have more questions than answers.”

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