Red Cross changes worry volunteers; Freeborn-Mower office consolidated to Rochester

Published 10:33 am Thursday, October 9, 2014

American Red Cross offices across the state are in for changes that worry many volunteers.

The Red Cross is consolidating its 13 Minnesota offices to five regional hubs, a move that will mean the Freeborn-Mower chapter is merging into the Rochester office. The local offices will no longer be staffed, and Executive Director Elaine Hansen’s position was eliminated.

Regional Communications Director Carrie Carlson-Guest promised the Red Cross will maintain a strong presence in Mower and Freeborn counties.

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“We absolutely have a presence and are looking to expand it,” she said.

But this is the second Red Cross consolidation in about a year. Last fall, the Red Cross closed its Freeborn County office to merge it with the Austin office located at 305 Fourth Ave. NW. The position of emergency services coordinator held by Chris Avery at the Freeborn office was eliminated at that time.

After the latest consolidation, the Red Cross will look for volunteers to help maintain the Red Cross presence in the community, as Carlson-Guest said there are more than 2,000 volunteers in Minnesota and about 200 in Mower and Freeborn counties. The move will make for about 120 volunteers to every one staff person, according to Carlson-Guest, which she described as proof the Red Cross is a volunteer-driven organization.

“We have a legacy of great volunteers,” she said.

But the recent changes concern local volunteers.

Volunteer Rita Hanegraaf called Hansen’s departure a “huge loss for the Red Cross Community” and said it could have a ripple effect.

“I think the volunteer base is going to struggle,” said Hanegraaf, a volunteer with the Rose Creek Disaster Actions Team.

Hanegraaf recalled needing supplies after a house fire for firemen and a family. She called Hansen, who was quick to help.

“It seemed to me that if we ever had a question, we knew who we could call morning, noon or night and our questions were handled,” she said.

Hanegraaf questioned if volunteers would get the same response from the Rochester office, as volunteers don’t know anyone there and don’t have that personal connection.

They could always count on Hansen, Hanegraaf said.

“I don’t feel we’re going to get that when we get pushed into a wider area,” she said.

Al Mandt, also a volunteer with the Rose Creek team, was sad to see Hansen go after the good work she’s done setting up satellite chapters like the one in Rose Creek.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “Elaine has done a fine job in the Austin chapter.”

Mandt wasn’t sure if he’d continue volunteering since it doesn’t feel local anymore. He said he’d wait to see how the transition works.

“It’s just too bad they have to do it,” he said.

Roger Boughton, an Austin City Council member and Red Cross volunteer, also expressed fear the Rochester office would lose touch with local volunteers.

“They don’t know anyone in Austin,” he said.

Boughton commended Hansen for her work responding to past Austin floods and questioned if there’d be a similar response to the next disaster since out-of-town Red Cross representatives won’t have a personal connection to the community.

“How the heck can Rochester be effective in our flooding in Austin?” he asked.

“It’s a shame,” he added.

Carlson-Guest promised the Red Cross will still be capable of responding to disasters and said the group will be able to pool sources around the state to help wherever services are most needed.

“As things ramp up and you need more capacity, you’re able to pull from all of your colleagues,” Carlson-Guest said.

Red Cross officials said the changes are part of a bigger transformation to make better use of donor dollars and have more resources available through the regional offices, which will be located in Rochester, Minneapolis, Mankato, St. Cloud and Duluth.

The Red Cross will maintain the Austin office, which will still be used for blood drives, classes and other events.

“While there won’t be any full time staff in that office, it will be available for staff to use with our volunteers,” Carlson-Guest said.

Carlson-Guest said they will work with volunteers and local boards to determine the best structure to provide programs and services.

Though Boughton was disappointed in the new direction for the Red Cross, he said he still supports the Red Cross’s cause.

“I really believe in the Red Cross,” he said.

Boughton feared the community may lose a sense of ownership in the Red Cross, but he said the changes don’t negate the need for services provided by the Red Cross.

“We still have a need in the community and a need for volunteers,” he said.