This month, the American Red Cross marks 140 years of preventing and alleviating human suffering.
It all began on May 21, 1881, when founder Clara Barton established the organization in Washington, D.C. Blazing a bold path, her leadership laid the groundwork for future generations to transform the Red Cross into a leading relief organization, where people continue to come together in innovative ways to serve and give hope for communities in need across the globe.
“We are proud to celebrate our organization’s 140th anniversary,” said Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross. “While so much has changed over the last 140 years, the one constant is how deeply humbled and grateful we continue to be for the steadfast commitment of our most compassionate friends.”
OUR MISSION THROUGH TIME
DISASTER CYCLE SERVICES Over the course of our 140-year history, Red Cross workers have responded to 3 million disasters in the U.S., providing millions of people with comfort, essentials like food and shelter, and support to rebuild their lives after crises of all kinds — from natural disasters to home fires to tragic shootings.
This work has always been at the heart of what we do. Months after Barton established the Red Cross, volunteers responded to devastating forest fires in Michigan. Nearly eight years later in 1889, she and a team of 50 volunteers provided emergency shelter for the first time in the aftermath of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, floods.
Following Barton’s retirement in 1904, the Red Cross continued to strengthen its volunteer-powered response efforts with technological advancements — from using the radio in 1931 to broadcast critical information about the devastating Dust Bowl storms to launching a fleet of custom emergency response vehicles in 1984 to more effectively deliver aid to hard-hit communities. In 2011, our first mobile apps began helping people find emergency shelters instantly — and today, our disaster management system, RC View, displays near real-time needs in user-friendly maps, enabling us to target assistance to where it’s needed most.
BIOMEDICAL SERVICES Blood has been transfused to patients for hundreds of years. However, it is only within the last 50 years that — thanks to advancements in science and medicine accompanied by technological innovations — modern blood banking has been able to exponentially improve the safety of the nation’s blood supply. The Red Cross, the largest national collector and distributer of blood products in the country, has been at the forefront of helping to improve the safety of the blood supply.
Since the 1970s, the Red Cross has helped U.S. health authorities, the blood industry and the general public better understand infectious diseases that could be transmitted through blood. The organization has led and participated in numerous studies and helped to validate and implement new testing technology that has revolutionized blood safety. In 1999, the Red Cross was the first blood collector to begin using nucleic acid testing (NAT), which has become the gold standard of testing.
Today, Red Cross Biomedical Services continues its efforts to further enhance the nation’s blood supply and improve public health efforts through continued proactive surveillance of known infectious diseases, and by working to identify new potential risks that must be mitigated to ensure the safety of transfused blood products. Most recently, it implemented COVID-19 antibody testing on all blood donations. This work has led to increased understanding about when the virus might have entered the U.S., its prevalence and how it spread geographically through the country.
TRAINING SERVICES For more than 100 years, Red Cross instructors have empowered ordinary individuals with extraordinary skills that save lives — starting in 1909 with its First Aid Training Department, which trained as many as 8,000 instructors to meet the increasing demand for first aid classes across the country.
In 1914, Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow saw the need to establish the national Red Cross Water Safety program and the Red Cross Lifesaving Corps. Since then, millions of individuals have successfully completed swimming, water safety and lifeguarding courses. People of all ages continue to learn to be competent in the water and to know how to prevent, recognize and respond to aquatic emergencies through the Aquatics Centennial Campaign.
Today, through the diverse portfolio of classes offered online, virtually and in person, more than 4.5 million people a year receive Red Cross training in first aid, water safety, nurse assistant training and testing, along with other lifesaving skills. Last year alone, over 500 individuals received National Lifesaving Awards for their heroic efforts that helped save 236 lives. The Red Cross also offers free mobile apps that about 2 million people download each year, including our First Aid, Pet First Aid and Swim apps.
SERVICE TO THE ARMED FORCES The American Red Cross first provided support to U.S. troops in a military engagement prior to the Spanish-American War. Red Cross staff have deployed alongside the military in every U.S. conflict since. Together, we honor the more than 500 Red Cross SAF workers who have lost their lives during these conflicts.
Today, the Red Cross provides services on all military installations in the U.S. and on 36 installations overseas. Each year, the Red Cross provides more than 513,000 services to military members, veterans, their families and caregivers. Red Cross SAF staff and volunteers serve side by side with the nation’s military delivering emergency messages, leading mental wellness courses, distributing comfort kits, calling cards, quality of life items, and providing deployment services. Because of the pandemic, we have launched virtual COVID-19-specific workshops and have added to our online communities and resources to support the growing mental health needs of military families, veterans and their caregivers.
INTERNATIONAL SERVICES As part of the world’s largest humanitarian network, the American Red Cross is one of 192 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies across the globe that respond to disasters, help families search for loved ones missing as a result of war, natural disaster or civil unrest, and work to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in communities around the world.
On average, the American Red Cross helps more than 200 million people outside the U.S. each year through disaster management and disease prevention activities. Through the Restoring Family Links program, American Red Cross caseworkers help relocate, on average, more than 7,000 families separated by war, disaster or migration around the world each year.
In 2001, the American Red Cross and other organizations launched an initiative to help control the spread of measles around the world. Since then, 2 billion children in more than 88 countries have been vaccinated through the Measles & Rubella Initiative.
Today, the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network is providing critical assistance to tens of thousands of migrants and refugees who are impacted by conflict in their home countries.
Climate change is a humanitarian crisis. Every day, the American Red Cross sees the heartbreak of families and communities trying to cope with more intense storms, heavier rainfall, higher temperatures, stronger hurricanes and more devastating wildfires. And for the vulnerable communities who are disproportionately impacted by the increased and virtually chronic frequency of these events, help cannot come soon enough.
We’re focused on growing our response capacity and delivering our services more sustainably — so we can continue to be there for future generations, just as we have for the past 140 years.
HOW YOU CAN HELP TODAY
The Red Cross mission is made possible by the generosity of donors and volunteers, who comprise more than 90% of our workforce. Visit redcross.org to get involved by making a financial donation, volunteering, giving blood or taking a class to learn lifesaving skills.
Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.