The American Red Cross has been around a long time. Nearly 140 years to be exact. K.C. Grist, executive director of the North Mississippi Chapter of the Red Cross, has been around somewhat less that that; she took over the reins of the chapter slightly more than a year ago, on January 28, 2020. Grist readily admits she has been on a yearlong learning curve. Throw in the COVID-19 pandemic and it has been a baptism under fire. While March is National Red Cross month, its work continues though it has seen some altering and adapting of efforts. For instance, the regional office on Westside Drive in Tupelo has been closed for a year now. Grist and the other paid employee and volunteers have been working remotely. “Everyone has gotten used to it,” Grist said of the changed operation. Even so, it has been a year of challenges. As Grist said, house fires and other disasters have not abated due to the virus; the need for Red Cross services has remained constant. When the office closed on March 1, 2020, Grist had just returned from a large management meeting in Atlanta: “Our chapter covers 31 counties and I was supposed to go to those counties,” she said of her plans upon returning from Georgia. “Then COVID hit.” That face-to-face junket to meet with county citizens and officials was scrapped. (Grist and her husband Joey both had COVID.) The Red Cross mission continued even as the virus spread: “We responded to a number of disasters,” said Grist. “We had to change the way we do things. Normally, we set up mass shelters but we couldn’t do that. And we had to change the way we deliver food. Things became a lot more expensive.” Rather than mass shelters, disaster victims were housed in hotels and motels, adding costs. Instead of food lines, meals were delivered, also adding costs. “But our donors responded,” Grist said. Financial contributions by benefactors, the lifeblood of the Red Cross, increased their donations in response to the additional needs. Grist reiterated that house fires, one of the primary requests made of the Red Cross, “have not stopped.” She said the North Mississippi chapter responds to house fires, providing shelter and food, at an average of one per day. “We’re still responding to those needs, just in a different way,” said Grist. She counts about 200 volunteers across the 31 counties of the chapter but added that “it’s not nearly enough.” More than half those counties, for example, do not have disaster volunteers; Lee County had 24 calls in 2020 that required a disaster volunteer response. The county has one disaster volunteer: “That is a lot for one person to handle,” said Grist. “We are always actively seeking volunteers.” Volunteers are sorely needed, though not only for disaster response but also for providing instructional training in preparedness and other areas. With tornado season beginning, the need could become even more acute. Grist asks this somewhat rhetorical question in case you are hit by a tornado: “Can you sustain your house and family for three days? People in Tupelo know about tornadoes.” The American Red Cross, on its website, offers these mission points, who they help: • People affected by disasters in America • Support for members of the military and their families • Blood collection, processing and distribution (This is done only at the Gulfport center.) • Health and safety education and training • International relief and development.
For more information about donating, volunteering and other North Mississippi Chapter of the Red Cross activities and programs, call Grist at (662) 321-8899. Besides Tupelo, the northern chapter maintains offices in Columbus, Greenville and Sardis.