WHETHER IT'S TYPHOONS OR FIRES, the American Red Cross Guam Chapter has been there for disasters of all kinds for over a century.
Chartered by Congress on October 23, 1916, its first chairman was former Naval Governor William Maxwell. The pre-war years saw the chapter grow in size and services like nursing and disaster relief.
Guam’s Red Cross, reorganized after World War II, has aided those in need throughout legendary typhoons like Karen, Pamela, Omar, Paka, and Pongsona. It also supported the Armed Forces, families, and refugees during the wars in Vietnam and Korea.
On the second floor of the Red Cross’s Hagåtña headquarters, built with fundraising and dedicated on Oct. 23, 1969, sits Chita Blaise, the first Filipina chairwoman. She’s looking chic as always, with a red scarf, nail polish, and lipstick. Even her watch is red.
It’s been about 15 years since Guam was last hit by a major typhoon, but Chita and her volunteers haven’t been idle. “When there’s no typhoon that doesn’t mean that we don’t do any of our humanitarian efforts,” she says.
Disaster relief, first aid and CPR training, life guard training, HIV/AIDS education, disaster preparedness, emergency message delivery to members of the Armed Forces, and fundraising efforts for international relief are just a few of the services rendered by the American Red Cross.
Chita adds, “One of the services that we render to the community is that we respond to single-family home fires. We average about 16 to 17 family home fires a fiscal year. Of course, the most memorable one recently is the one in Yigo where five children perished in a fire.”
Guam’s Red Cross covered burial expenses for the children and provided basic necessities like food, clothing, eyeglasses, and medicine for surviving family members.
“There was a time many, many years ago when we used to replace what you lost. But prices have gone up, and the organization has also streamlined. So we had to become more efficient,” Chita says.
She lights up as she describes the newest initiatives the chapter is bringing to the community.
“Because we have not had (a typhoon) for 15 years, we just had our Disaster Institute on April 25 and 26. We trained government employees on sheltering. And it’s true, we haven’t had one and we probably don’t know what to do. It was a very successful workshop. We brought in people from the mainland Red Cross to facilitate,” she narrates.
Another new service is “Sound the Alarm.” Working with the mayor’s council to identify residents at risk, the Red Cross installs a smoke alarm that will shake a person awake in the event of a fire. The campaign is aimed at bedridden residents who may be left alone at home during the day. Chita says those interested in getting the smoke alarm for their house can contact their village mayor, who will coordinate with the Red Cross.
The American Red Cross also recently received a grant from The Walt Disney Company for a new initiative called the Pillowcase Project. Targeted at kids in grades 3 to 5, it teaches preparedness in a memorable way.
Chita says, “They have a pillowcase that they can write on, and it tells them what they need to have, like batteries, water, flashlights, etc., to make their own disaster kit. What better way for the parents to be made aware? Because children will always remind the parents you have to have a plan.”
These programs and more are all volunteer-led, and all it takes is a visit to www.redcross.org to submit a simple form on what area you might be interested in.
People are needed in all parts of the organization, from clerical work to disaster action team members. From ensuring delivery of emergency communication to members of the military to teaching certified courses in babysitting or CPR, there are opportunities for everyone. The local chapter has opened an office at Naval Hospital Guam, and is working on another satellite location at Andersen Air Force Base.
Guam’s staff is tiny compared to mainland chapters. “It’s small, let’s face it. For a population of 170,000, there’s only three of us here full time,” Chita acknowledges.
Volunteers, who are always sorely needed, tend to come and go. The cost of living has increased, and chapters have had to adapt. Chita says the American Red Cross has shrunk from 3,000 chapters to about 700 nationwide, but since Guam is used to doing more with less the effect has been minimal. She says, “I think at the end of the day, because we are small we are better. We are more efficient.”
And they have to be. The Red Cross gets zero funds from the federal or local government. All the money for invaluable services the chapter provides comes from donations and fundraising.
Chita emphasizes, “It’s wonderful that we are structured that way, because that way we can maintain one of our fundamental principles, which is neutrality and independence, because we’re not in debt it to any one entity. And I’m proud to say that you don’t have to qualify to get assistance from the Red Cross. When there is a need, we fill that need.”
The biggest revenue generator for Guam’s chapter is the annual Red Ball. The second is an annual golf tournament. “There are only two chapters in the whole United States that are special-event driven, and that’s Guam and the Northern Marianas chapters,” Chita says.
Last year’s Red Ball, chaired by Pacific Daily News Publisher Rindraty Limtiaco, was extra special, as it marked the 100th anniversary of the Guam Chapter. This year’s Red Ball is chaired by Docomo Pacific’s CEO and President Jonathan Kriegel.
“Last year we netted $244,000, and the goal is always to beat last year’s figure. When we had our first Red Ball we netted $30,000 and we were so happy,” Chita laughs.
Inspired by the Northern Marianas Chapter’s Club 200 event, the Red Ball is in its 17th year.
Chita says, “The first Red Ball was held at the Hyatt, and I believe the first chair was Champ Calvo. Oh my God, it has grown and evolved! It really depends on the chair, but we were just beginning at the time. We were not even sure that it was going to be a success, but we have to take a risk, right? No guts, no glory!”
She adds, “We’re proud to say that we have grown that program, and my board members are really, really hands-on. They do recognize that is one event that we really have to make, because the whole operation of the chapter depends on that event. I have to say, my staff, my board members…it’s a great team.”
Chita is also proud that several of their board members who have stepped down have come back. “That tells you a lot, right?” she exclaims. “They really enjoyed being on the board, and I think at the end of the day, the camaraderie is wonderful. I think when you let them know what the chapter has done, and you make them aware of all the services that we have rendered to the community, they’re so proud we do so much with so little.”
Chita is no stranger to fundraising, having worked at the Ford Foundation in the 1970s and served time as past president of the Rotary Club, the Guam Women’s Club, and the International Women’s Club. She’s also an associate member of the Chamber of Commerce, but she says she’s concentrating on the Red Cross right now.
“To be a member of an organization, you cannot be just a member in name. I’m not like that. If I’m going to be a member of any organization I need to feel like I’m involved in making a difference,” she says.
Guam’s Red Cross chairperson herself has been head of the local chapter for 16 years, through ups and downs. Originally from Manila, she married her husband Hans in 1979, and they moved to New York for a while before relocating to Guam.
She muses, “This is my home now…I arrived in 1981, and this is where my husband fell ill. And if I wasn’t here on Guam, if we were still living in New York when he got sick, there’s no way that I could’ve handled everything. But here…the friends that you make are real friends for life. And now that I’m alone since my husband passed away…I don’t feel [really] alone.”
“To be a member of an organization, you cannot be just a member in name. I’m not like that. If I’m going to be a member of any organization I need to feel like I’m involved in making a difference.”
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