American Red Cross North MS chapter navigates new re-opening routine

·4 min read

Jun. 12—TUPELO — The North Mississippi chapter of the American Red Cross is rebuilding in-person connections after two years of making a digital difference.

The Tupelo office of the nonprofit disaster relief organization is settling into its new routine after reopening to the public in May. As the chapter headquarters, the new building signals a reset for the chapter overall.

The North Mississippi chapter staff includes a fundraising team, volunteer services, operations, head volunteer for service to Armed forces and state relations executive. There are two additional offices in Columbus and Greenville.

Since most of the team is spread throughout Mississippi and Alabama, the chapter frequently uses collaboration days like the one held last Wednesday morning. From a spacious conference room inside the new headquarters, Executive Director KC Grist and disaster program specialist Steven Havens hopped on a nearly 40-minute conversation focused on increasing its presence in the 31 counties the North Mississippi chapter serves.

Recruiting its disaster action team (DAT) is a key focus. Chapter leaders are working to establish volunteer leadership networks and DATs in order to have a presence in each of its counties.

"One of the things that happens right now is, say there's a fire in a particular county, and we don't have volunteers in that county," Grist said. "Well, it delays the response if someone's got to come from an hour away."

The 2022 fiscal year was a busy one for the chapter. Fires remain the top disaster in North Mississippi, with the Red Cross responding to 517 single and multifamily fires. Overall, the chapter assisted 558 families recover from fires in their homes, providing $412,551 in direct financial assistance, according to data from July 1, 2021 through April 30, 2022.

Because of the frequency of house fires, preparedness is a big emphasis of the North Mississippi chapter, which installed 137 free smoke alarms last year.

Volunteers helped over 443 families affected by local floods, tornadoes and hurricanes and provided an additional $103,672 in emergency financial assistance.

Despite having 218 trained volunteers on paper, the number of active volunteers is lower. A portion of its volunteer base is built on retirees, who felt the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown "worse than almost anybody else," Grist said.

"COVID really did a number on us from a volunteer standpoint," Grist said. "A lot of our people who've been responding have not been able to come back yet."

But the chapter is strengthening its network in places like Washington County, where staff met with the local United Way about re-establishing its presence in the county. Another goal is helping the Greenville office following the theft of three central air conditioning units. The office will reopen once the units are replaced.

Volunteering is more than disaster response, Grist said. Now that the Tupelo office is open, her team needs volunteers who can be office workers. The team also welcomes volunteers to help facility and vehicle upkeep or its communication.

Youth clubs have been one area of growth for the Red Cross. The organization has 10 clubs within the region, with the University of Mississippi, Mooreville and Saltillo being the three in Northeast Mississippi. The group is currently working for a teacher sponsor to establish an additional club with Tupelo High School. Clubs select their own projects. Service can overlap with other established Red Cross projects, such as its service to the armed forces.

In 2022, Red Cross assisted 334 military members and their families with 1,509 emergency services. Red Cross head service to the armed forces volunteer Carolyn Berry continued her work with the Oxford Veterans Affairs by using an annual grant to provide veterans with wishlist items.

The organization trained 3,824 people in health and safety classes during the 2022 fiscal year, but it did not encompass the full range of available training classes, such as its swimming lesson and lifeguard training, CPR, first aid, babysitting and preparing emergency kits.

With the new headquarters open, the focus naturally shifts to the chapter's future. Grist eventually wants to offer its training classes at least once a month in the office.

"We haven't been able to do (it) for two years," Grist said. "I'm eager to get folks in here."