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One Hundred Years of Service: The Rhode Island Chapter

Red Cross Flag
The Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross has been saving lives since 1916

From providing aid after unspeakable tragedies, to feeding hungry children and caring for the sick, the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Red Cross has been saving lives since 1916. Not only have these brave volunteers risked their own lives for generations, they have reached out and cared for many; providing warmth and comfort when hope seemed to be lost, and cheering the lonely with their company. In this issue of Crossnotes, we would like to honor those who tirelessly supported countless people at home and abroad throughout some of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century, and those who continue to do so today.

In the past century, the Rhode Island Chapter of the Red Cross has had its sleeves up and ready to help those suffering in some of the most infamous disasters, both natural and manmade, of human history. In 1918, the Spanish Influenza epidemic wreaked havoc across the globe, killing around 50 million people. In Rhode Island alone, about 50 people died a day from September to November of that year. Because the military had diverted so many registered nurses, the Newport Chapter recruited women with caregiving and nursing experience to provide much needed aid to those suffering from the Spanish Flu. They made bed linens, gauze masks, and hospital gowns for patients, and set up facilities when hospitals became filled with sick people.

When the Great Depression struck the nation, the Rhode Island Chapter was also there to serve those in need. In 1926, they gave the unemployed flour and clothes, and asked hospitals for the names of impoverished patients who were too sick to work so that they could be given coal for fuel. After the Hurricane of ’38 made landfall, the Red Cross provided food and shelter for those who were left homeless; in Rhode Island, 262 people died. However, when the Hurricane of ’44 struck, the Red Cross was included in the state’s disaster plan, and they were ready with evacuation routes and shelters for refugees. No lives were lost.

Throughout World War II, the Rhode Island Chapter provided indispensable services to soldiers, military families, and refugees. Hospital volunteers dressed wounds, and collected lifesaving blood and plasma. Clothing drives were held for refugees, and packages were made for POWs. Red Cross members also helped track missing servicemen, taught military wives how to manage their finances, and provided financial aid to their families. Overseas, Anne Koek became a respected hospital secretary for the European theater, so much so that she was selected to be a member of the pool for the Nuremberg Trials. The Rhode Island Red Cross was even there to help four orphans under seven years old whom a United States soldier found wandering in the Philippine jungle. A caring Red Cross worker made clothing for the children and gave them shelter.

Not only has the Rhode Island Red Cross saved many lives from historic disasters this past century, it has provided many other vital services to locals. Rhode Island native “Commodore” W. E. Longfellow made a significant impact on the number of drownings in the United States by convincing the national branch of the Red Cross to offer free swimming and lifeguarding lessons. He also began the Volunteer Life Saving Corps to patrol public beaches. Due to his efforts, the rate of drownings in the United States was cut in half by 1947. The Portsmouth branch showcased the results of their classes by hosting a cross-river race in 1951. This became an annual event for years afterward. In 1970, the Rhode Island Chapter added the “Adaptive Aquatics” program for children with disabilities.

The Rhode Island Chapter of the Red Cross also aided hospitals by providing caregiving services. In the 1940s, members of the Recreation and Crafts Committee known as the Gray Ladies helped with the recovery of long-term patients. Along with general caregiving, these women performed occupational therapy, and listened to patients, providing them with comfort while they recovered.

Women also played a large role in the Motor Corps, a peace-time emergency medical transportation service that started in the 1930s. These vehicles, often station wagons, were donated by private citizens, and fitted up with one or two cots. Many Motor Corps women took a three month course on vehicular repair and maintenance at a local car factory. Often, they took advanced first aid and nursing classes, including emergency child delivery so that they could assist military wives.

Senior citizens also received aid from Rhode Island Red Cross workers and volunteers. In 1978, they started the Meals-on-Wheels program, which provided nutritious meals to the elderly. These caring volunteers provided conversation and company to those who needed it.

For 100 years, the Rhode Island Red Cross has made an enormous impact locally and globally. Workers and volunteers still help with disaster prevention and relief, provide for the physical and emotional needs of veterans, and provide lifesaving health and safety classes to the community. Red Cross volunteers do amazing things. But guess what? So can you. Joining the Red Cross means that like many others over the past century, you will make a difference. To learn more about the Rhode Island Red Cross and ways to get involved, visit: