Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories highlighting the 21 agencies to receive United Way's annual campaign funds. The next article will run in Tuesday's edition of The Telegram.

BY KAMIL ZAWADZKI

kzawadzki@gctelegram.com

Helping people when they need it most. That's what the Red Cross does.

But there is more to its mission than helping with massive disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the tornado this year that put Joplin, Mo., on the map. From house fires to blood drives, the local chapter of the Red Cross is active daily in offering help.

Carolyn Henry, executive director of the Garden City chapter of the Red Cross, says it is what rarely makes world headlines that forms the core of the organization's operations and is the most common across the United States: the house fire.

"A lot of times, people don't know about the middle of the night, when we went and responded to a family in need," Henry said. "But we're always there."

Henry is no armchair activist. Not only does she help shelter families who watched their homes burn down, she also is a veteran of post-Katrina relief work in New Orleans, working round the clock to assist communities devastated by the hurricane. When three jetliners were grounded at the airport in the hours after the 9/11 terror attacks, Henry and her volunteers helped shelter, inform and counsel passengers and crew shocked by news of what happened on the East Coast.

More recently, she helped spearhead the evacuation of Satanta when a massive grass fire nearly overwhelmed the town in April, providing food and shelter to evacuees at the high school in neighboring Sublette.

Doing relief work day-to-day is not easy, and Henry admits it can take a toll on a person.

"It breaks my heart," she said. "It's really hard to go home with everything that I have knowing that they just lost everything."

When they come back from a relief effort, Red Cross volunteers are offered counseling and mental health services to help them cope with what they've seen.

"The thing about the Red Cross, we're like a tight-knit family," Henry said, admitting that she also has a close friend whom she can confide in on hard days.

The Red Cross is one of 21 area agencies that requests funds from Finney County United Way to help the financial aspect of carrying out its operations and meeting its mission goals. As United Way begins its 2012 fundraising campaign, the Red Cross is set to receive $28,000 for the coming year, according to Henry.

Henry highlights the importance of the work local chapters of the Red Cross, such as the one in Garden City, are doing in providing relief, support and shelter to people who have been touched by tragedy.

People who can't, themselves, visit epicenters of disaster can help from a distance, at blood drives the Red Cross holds regularly in Garden City and surrounding communities. The blood donation side of the Red Cross' operations is as important to such disaster relief as it is with more localized events, according to Terry Sharon, a collections operations supervisor at a recent blood drive in Garden City.

"In Joplin, in Haiti ... the Red Cross was right there," Sharon said. "(But we also) have to keep the hospitals supplied with blood because one car accident, one person can take a lot of blood."

Donors must meet certain physical requirements, including adequate weight and iron levels, and be free of certain diseases such as cancer. In addition, donors must wait 56 days before donating blood again, to ensure that the body has replenished its own blood levels.

Judy Whitehill keeps coming back, and has been donating her blood for years. For Whitehill, it all started out as a family affair.

"The first time I gave (blood) was when I was in college, when my mom was having open-heart surgery," she said. "I did it as a gift to my mother."

Since then, Whitehill has kept coming back, knowing that this is a way she and others can help people.

"I've realized the importance (of it), and I've been a blood donor ever since," she says.

Whitehill believes that blood drives are a more effective way of raising awareness and getting more people to donate blood, and praises the work of volunteers helping organize such events.

"The Red Cross is always doing great things for different communities," Whitehill said. "I know it's a very important organization."

Henry stresses the importance of local chapters of the Red Cross and the work of the other United Way agencies in the community with which she often collaborates. She also is appreciative of the support she gets from the community, both moral and financial the Red Cross is not funded by the federal government.

Still, the Red Cross is not immune to the lingering economic recession, and the organization is feeling the pinch at all levels. Multiple offices across Kansas have been closed down. Henry recently had to lay off a paid staff member. Nationwide, the Red Cross is undergoing a restructuring to help chapters do more with less and become more efficient.

But despite the financial issues, there is a silver lining to working with the Red Cross, Henry said. And she shares a mantra among Red Cross volunteers and workers: "You will never work so hard for pay, but you'll never feel as good as you did."

"The reward is amazing," Henry said. "Just knowing that you're helping people make a difference in their lives."

Other United Way agencies that will receive funds for 2012 are Kansas Children's Service League, Santa Fe Trail Council Boy Scouts, Smart Start, Playground Program, Catholic Social Services, Family Crisis Services, Spirit of the Plains, CASA, The Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity, Finney County RSVP, Inc., Garden City Family YMCA, Miles of Smiles, Russel Child Development Center, Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association, United Methodist Mexican American Ministries Clinic, United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney & Kearny Counties, Community Day Care and Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland.

American Red Cross

Address: 210 Fulton Terrace

Hours: 9 a.m. to noon, 1 to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday

Phone: 276-2762

Executive Director: Carolyn Henry