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San Diego Region Celebrates 120th Anniversary

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The American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties remains committed to the community

 Celebrating 120 Years of Service: 
American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties Founding Anniversary

Long before there were freeways running to the beaches and local mountains of San Diego, even before the San Diego Zoo opened and the U.S. Navy established a presence in Coronado, the American Red Cross was part of the community. The American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties emerged during the Spanish-American War, as a result of a nationwide relief effort for soldiers. On May 26, 1898, the first meeting of the “San Diego Red Cross Society,” as it was then called, was led by local professor T.N. Miller in the parlor of the local YMCA. Nine citizens in attendance discussed plans for a permanent organization and potential speakers who could “stir up more interest among the San Diego people in the movement.” Attendees also appointed temporary leadership to guide the organization in its expansion efforts.

On June 16, 1898, with a total of 18 participants paying membership dues, the local Red Cross established the Board of Directors and elected its first board chair. Harriet Ballou, who became considered the San Diego equivalent of the national American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, would serve in the position until 1918. As part of the initial goal to assist soldiers, Ballou led the San Diego Red Cross in its first humanitarian project – collecting and delivering supplies to the war front in Santiago, Cuba. These items included bandages, surgical supplies, cabbage, canned tomatoes, apples and lemons for soldiers in need.

After the Spanish-American War ended in August 1898, the local Red Cross focused its efforts on raising funds to offer post-war support. Donations were used to send $10 monthly aid  to sick soldiers in San Francisco, provide assistance to veterans in San Diego and fund travel for disabled soldiers and their dependents to return home.

During the early 20th century, the San Diego Red Cross was relatively quiet until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire that followed. The local Red Cross sent nearly 230 boxes of supplies, 50 sacks of shoes and additional tents, matting, cots and financial donations to support displaced families. These contributions, in addition to natural disaster response and support for refugees in the following years, established the San Diego Red Cross as a leader in mass disaster relief.

Over the next several decades, the local Red Cross supported military members and their families, provided disaster relief and assisted in health and safety preparedness initiatives. The region’s achievements during the mid-20th century include sending more than four million surgical supply items during World War II, participating in the first mass anti-polio inoculation for adults in the 1950s and providing medical aid and relocation assistance at Camp Pendleton for more than 38,000 refugees of the Vietnam War.

After 120 years of service, the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties remains committed to the community by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors. Today, the region serves more than 3.6 million people and covers nearly 10,000 square miles in San Diego and Imperial Counties, as well as American Samoa.

The local Red Cross responds to a disaster in our region nearly every 24 hours. Annually, the local Service to the Armed Forces division provides services to more than 40,000 service members and military families. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program provides nutrition counseling and support for more than 100,000 women, infants and children throughout San Diego County. The regional Sound the Alarm campaign makes homes safer with volunteers installing thousands of free smoke alarms and reviewing fire escape plans with residents in at-risk neighborhoods, and the Prepare San Diego initiative helps equip community members with the skills needed to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. Additionally, local blood drives collect thousands of pints of blood that provide the precious gift of life for patients in need.

To learn more about the founding of the local Red Cross, visit the San Diego History Center’s website. To learn more about the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties, please visit