“If I can’t be a soldier, I’ll help soldiers.”
These famous words of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, were the start of a national movement that has seen the United States through over a century of war, disaster and emergency, both domestic and abroad.
The original Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies were born on the battlefields of Switzerland, championed by Henri Durant. In 1870, Barton served as a Red Cross volunteer during the Franco-Prussian War, and returned to the United Sates with one goal in mind: to establish an American organization. In 1900, Congress chartered American Red Cross under the Switzerland organization. For this reason, the America Red Cross symbol is the inverse of the Swiss flag.
Forty-three years later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the month of March Red Cross Month, asking Americans to rededicate themselves to “the splendid aims and activities of the Red Cross.” Every year since, subsequent presidents have declared March to be Red Cross Month, celebrating the work of hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
“The promise is as powerful as it is simple,” says Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, CEO of the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter. “We are here to help in times of disaster—to prevent disaster, to prepare for disaster and to recover from disaster.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Red Cross operating in Pennsylvania.
The organization responds to disasters everyday by providing food, shelter, medication and other needs to assist families getting back on their feet.
The most common daily disaster is fire. Currently the Eastern Pa. Chapter is focusing their efforts on a campaign known as “No More Fire Death”, a prevention initiative. To help prevent fires, volunteers have been installing smoke detectors in homes and helping families design escape plans in the event of an emergency.
Despite the Congressional charter, the American Red Cross receives no federal funding and the vast majority—90 percent—of the American Red Cross workforce, is made up of volunteers. “The Red Cross operates on a principle of incredible generosity,” says Hughes, who oversees 17 counties and 6.2 million lives.
Prior to her work with the Red Cross, Hughes was a judge on the Court of Common Pleas for nearly 16 years. “I loved being a judge, it was incredible, incredible work.” When the Red Cross began looking for a CEO, Hughes researched the mission and felt she could make a larger difference in the community.
“I sat homicide, so my impact was more limited. Someone had already died, another person was very likely going to go to jail or possibly death row. But the work I do with the Red Cross, it influences the community in a much bigger way. We save lives,” she says.
“The purpose of the Red Cross is to help the community and we do that because volunteers come out and enable us to do this work,” Hughes says, emphasizing the variety of positions and tasks performed by volunteers on a daily basis. “Whether you give blood, or you make a financial donation, or give your time, you allow the Red Cross to always honor that promise. That is really what I need people to know.”
Red Cross volunteers also learn life-saving skills, including CPR, lifeguarding, childcare, first aid and how to use automated external defibrillators.
“No matter what your time or your talent, we can use your help,” Hughes says. “Red Cross volunteers may not have capes, but they are heroes.”