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Red Cross faces daunting deficit

They reach out to people in the worst of times. When disaster strikes, relief often comes first from the American Red Cross. Now the longtime philanthropic organization needs a rescuing touch of its own.

Tammy Evans, her cousin Michael Virgil and her four children were burned out of their Meadows Avenue apartment Feb. 4 when french fries on the stove caught fire. She said the Red Cross came right away and gave her money for clothes and food.

Cyndi Burnett of Merced has been a Disaster Action Team member with the Red Cross for about five years. She likes being on call any time of the day or night and said Red Cross service is very fulfilling.

Larry Reed is executive director of the Merced-Mariposa Counties Chapter and has worked for the Red Cross since 1981 in the San Jose area, Indiana and Michigan. He said the Merced chapter is struggling to make ends meet now and is facing its second $100,000 deficit in successive fiscal years.

Board Chairman Rich Gipson, a retired teacher, said people take the Red Cross for granted. He said his biggest frustration is a lack of public awareness about the Red Cross in the community.

"Most folks don't understand what the American Red Cross does because we do it quietly," Gipson said. "A lot of people think we're government-funded. We are chartered by Congress but get no funding, even from the parent organization. We totally support ourselves through donations and fundraising."

A New Year's resolution five years ago sparked Burnett, a 37-year-old medical assistant, to volunteer. Unlike many similar resolutions people typically make, she stayed with this one and is proud to say she's with the Red Cross. Once a month she has a pager for a week and responds at any time of the day or night when there's an emergency.

"I wanted to find an organization that helped others," Burnett said. "We see people when they are at their absolute worst. I encourage other people to get involved; a lot of people think it's just older folks who volunteer but it's good to see younger people involved."

Burnett helps set up Red Cross canteens at local emergencies and gives displaced people money for immediate needs like shelter, clothing and food. She gives out "comfort kits" which include soap, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, and stuffed animals for the children.

Merced Fire Chief Ken Mitten has served in various Red Cross board positions for three decades. On the worksheets that incident commanders fill out at each fire, one of the questions asked is whether the displaced fire occupants need assistance from the Red Cross.

"The bottom line is the Red Cross is an agency that definitely puts the money where it is supposed to go," Mitten said. "They have the resources to respond but at times funding gets very thin."

Gipson, 61, said he has always had an affinity for the Red Cross. As a high school student in Bellevue, Neb., Gipson was president of a Red Cross chapter which conducted a spring blood drive and each year gathered emergency supplies to send to young disaster victims.

As an Atwater City Council member from 1974-78, Gipson served a term on the local Red Cross board and then lost contact with the organization until attending the "MASH Bash" about four years ago. This rekindled his desire to serve and get others to help as well.

"The Red Cross saves lives every day. It is always there."

Evans, 29, is a home care aide who has taken care of a paralyzed man since the end of October. This is not her first brush with tragedy - an electrical-caused fire destroyed her Bakersfield home last summer.

"It's hard, being a single parent with four kids, coming up with stuff again," Evans said. "I came out with nothing. I hope nobody experiences what I went through but everything happens for a reason. The Good Lord is still watching over me."

Eventually she hopes to replace the things that burned and says she takes it day by day. She said the Red Cross was "a lot of help." Evans, her 11-year-old daughter Destiny Shaw, twin 7-year-old boys Emanuel and Samuel Evans, and 1-year-old daughter Melika McDonald still need clothes, shoes, a kitchen table and chairs, among other furnishings.

Reed, the Red Cross director, said his group's mission is to assist victims of disaster wherever that may be. Large-scale calamities like Hurricane Katrina and the recent Southern California wildfires come to mind but Red Cross outreach happens every day at the local level, where funding is typically most limited.

"We run a very lean ship; there's no fat in this operation," Reed said. "We're struggling to make it month by month. All non-profits are struggling and that's not unique to Merced. Individuals and businesses tell me this is a difficult time and we can't help you now. The number of donations and the amounts given are down."

Reed is hoping the public responds favorably to the second-annual "Everyday Heroes" fund-raising breakfast April 2 at the Merced Senior Community Center.

Ten people who rescued others during local emergencies will be honored at one of the Red Cross' major fund-raisers of the year.

The Red Cross has cut back as much as it can and is down from six to four employees. The organization was fortunate to receive several large bequests but these funds are almost gone, Gipson said.

Gipson and Reed said volunteers are the heart of the organization and more are always needed. Several of the 100 people who volunteer with the two-county group were victims themselves. Burnett said she has friends who were helped by the Red Cross.

"What's a few minutes out of a day? I've been able to help people I know. I brought some kind of comfort when people needed it the most. It's very rewarding," she said.

Reed said the Red Cross has between 1,500 and 2,000 regular supporters. Gipson said the group wants to get a high school chapter started again and there is a group forming at UC Merced.

Gipson said the Red Cross is looking at partnerships with faith-based organizations since churches often become disaster shelters.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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