Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Sandra and Debbie Eisert
Oklahoma City. Los Angeles. Bosnia. What do these different locations have in common? They all have suffered disasters, one very recently, one a few months ago, and one has been suffering for years.
And what has been there in every case and in many other parts of the world whenever it was needed? The Red Cross. It seems to be everywhere at once, having helped people for over 100 years during disasters, man-made and natural.
Image caption: El Paso Red Cross 1943 War Fund Committee. Left to right seated: Mrs. Ruth Zork, Mrs. Billie Flournoy, Mrs. Florence Watkins, Mrs. Georgia Anderson, Mrs. Emmie Oliver. Standing: Mrs. Susan Kaster, Mrs. Zeliah Heid, Mrs. Chata de Portearoyo, Mrs. Betty Brunner, Mrs. Louise Walker and Mrs. Waldo Meyer. Photo courtesy of the Southwest Collection, El Paso Public Library
The International Red Cross was established in 1864 through the efforts of Henri Dunant as a result of his witnessing the ravages of war. Clara Barton began the American Chapter in 1881. The El Paso Red Cross Chapter was organized in 1911 during the Mexican Revolution by Dr. C. M. Hendricks and a group of El Pasoans to help the wounded lying in the streets of Juárez after the city was invaded by Francisco Madero.
The Red Cross motto, "Humanity in the Midst of War," became especially important during World War II. The volunteer organization was known for the help it gave to the armed forces and their families, for its blood program, for safety and nursing services and for its international services.
Even before the United States entered World War II, posters and newspapers ads urged El Pasoans, especially women, to get involved helping the war effort. Red Cross volunteers were trained in first aid, planted gardens for home canning and raised money for relief work. By June 25, 1940, approximately 1,500 El Paso women were involved in the different services offered by the Red Cross to help war refugees.
Dr. Hendricks, chairman of the local chapter at this time, once asked 400 volunteers to knit sweaters for refugees and soldiers and to roll surgical bandages. Sewing rooms were set up across the community in places like Temple Mt. Sinai to make hospital bed shirts and operating gowns.
Women at the Lower Valley Community Center made layettes for refugee babies as well as red, white and blue afghans for wheelchair occupants. Women volunteers from the Red Cross also made ice bag covers, bedsides bags and ditty bags containing personal hygiene articles for the soldiers. The organization also provided soldiers with tobacco, books and writing paper.
The Red Cross formed canteen units to provide food, drink and hospitality for the soldiers. Austin High School housed the first canteen and other units followed at Bowie High School and the Technical Institute.
A canteen was set up at Douglass School, which served the black community at that time.
A Railroad Canteen was established at the Union Station Train Depot. Many troops traveled by train, and when time permitted, they were offered coffee, snacks, cigarettes, magazines, newspapers, box lunches or even complete cafeteria style meals. Many times canteen workers would board the train and distribute their supplies when the soldiers did not have time to unload.
The "Gray Ladies," the Red Cross's organized corps, helped boost the morale of the armed forces at William Beaumont Hospital. El Paso Lennie Burnette, a Gray Lady during the war, worked in a mental ward. She helped by providing snacks, taking mail back and forth, reading, and helping clean and change beds. Only after the war did she realize how valuable her services had been to the patients.
The Red Cross also offered emotional support to families when their husbands, brothers and sons went off to war. Volunteers maintained vital communication between the men at the front and their families. They notified families of injuries and deaths. Many El Paso families such as Mr. and Mrs. Tomas Gonzales, who lost their son in World War II, were in great need of that strong arm that the Red Cross offered.
One of the Red Cross's most notable services during the war was its blood program. Throughout America, more than 13 million pints of blood were donated through appeals at the local and national level. This program is still very much alive today.
Besides giving aid to disaster and war victims, the American Red Cross today offers classes in standard first aid, emergency preparedness, baby-sitting, nursing assistance, CPR, HIV/AIDS education, and other areas. It provides counseling in family or personal problems, helps financially, locates lost family members during emergencies and offers many other services.
The Red Cross is still a very popular organization that today consists mainly of women. A Red Cross pamphlet indicates that the Disaster Action Team responds to an average of two local incidents or disasters every week. The Red Cross has always valued and promoted the welfare of humanity; indeed one of its publications advises new volunteers, "As a Red Cross volunteer, you may never work harder, but you will never feel better about what you've done. It will be the best job you never got paid to do."