Norma Perlstein, a beloved "donor ambassador" at the Oakland Blood Donation Center, may be oldest still-living recipient of a prestigious American Red Cross volunteer recognition award. She was already in her high '80s when — 10 years ago — she received the Katherine Knapp Award at her Greenwich, Connecticut chapter.
Now in her high 90s and having moved across the country to Berkeley five years ago, Perlstein shows no signs of slowing down — other than experiencing an occasional lapse in memory. "I've gotten so many awards and so many certificates, I don't quite remember much about that particular one," she says without even a hint of conceit.
Truth be told, when you have lived as long as Perlstein has — and been as service-oriented — you can be forgiven for a few forgetful moments when it comes to the many deserved thank you's you've received along the way.
If a person's compassion index is a product of years of service and degree of commitment, Perlstein leaves no doubt which component she'd rather talk about. Regarding her years of service, she will only say this much: "I've been volunteering since the beginning of time," she says, with a slight giggle, "so people can figure it out."
She's also downplays her precise age, barely acknowledging that she'll be a centenarian in just a few years.
But when the conversation turns to degree of commitment, Perlstein is plenty passionate. "I was brought up in the tradition of service, of doing for others, and of being useful," she says with no hesitation.
When pressed, Perlstein can recall a Red Cross career that dates back to least 1942, a time — 74 years ago — when the United States was embroiled in World War II. "Like everybody else, I was trying to do my little bit," she says. "I was knitting sweaters, preparing first-aid kits, and rolling bandages."
She had recently moved from her hometown of New Milford, Connecticut to the nearby city of Hartford to accept a position in the local hospital's business office. "Since I was already at the hospital, I just started volunteering for the Red Cross as a nurses aide," she says. "In my spare time, I would relieve nurses who went off to serve in the armed forces."
It was as a volunteer nurse's aide that Perlstein experienced one of her most memorable Red Cross responses. The Hartford circus fire, which claimed 167 lives in the summer of 1944, is still considered one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. "All of the volunteers in that area were called to assist," she remembers. "I was assigned to one of the hospital's children's wards. Hundreds of children were burned and many died."
By the 1950s, Perlstein had shifted her Red Cross focus to blood services — a line of volunteer work that came in handy after her new husband's military assignment required that the couple relocate to Texas. Eventually, they made their way back to Hartford, before relocating to Stamford and later Greenwich. "As we moved from community to community during those many years, blood services work was always there," she says.
While in Greenwich, Perlstein volunteered for a number of other major Red Cross responses, including 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy.
When Perlstein moved west to be close to two of the couple's four children in the Bay Area, it didn't take her long to set foot in the Oakland Blood Center. Once there, she impressed the staff and volunteers already there with — no surprise — her deep commitment to service.
"She's here every Tuesday, greeting blood donors when they come in," says Kayla Haynes, the Red Cross region's volunteer recruitment representative for blood services. "She answers all of their questions, and just makes them comfortable."
Haynes says the volunteer requirement for someone in Perlstein's blood ambassador position is one shift per month. "Norma has taken it upon herself to do at least one shift a week — and she also pops in on Thursday or Friday if we need help," a grateful Haynes says.
For Perlstein, that's not asking too much. In fact, she says her numerous Red Cross experiences have introduced her to "some of the best people I've known in my life."
She also credits her Red Cross work for two of her most prized personal possessions. "I have certificates of appreciation signed by President Roosevelt in 1943 and President Truman in 1946."
Now that would have made longtime Connecticut Red Crosser Katherine Knapp, the namesake for a volunteer award that Perlstein won but doesn't completely recall, very proud indeed.