September 2, 2016; WHEC-TV (Rochester, NY)

In Western New York, the Red Cross has closed 14 of its 19 chapters since 2008, which has had a profound effect on volunteer recruitment.

“In some of our smaller areas where we have closed offices,” says Jim Love, the executive director of the Greater Rochester Red Cross, “we’re not recruiting as robustly as probably we were in the past. When we make these major changes, obviously we can’t please everyone.”

Jay Bonafede, who oversees communications for the Red Cross of Western New York, sees something different. “All of these changes have really had no effect on our services in the community,” Bonafede says. “What they’ve allowed us to do is actually put more of our finances into the community.”

But the manner of the closures leaves one wondering. The shuttering of the chapter in northern Livingston County, reports a local volunteer coordinator, “happened in an instant,” with no plan visibly advanced to the community for the future of valued local programs, including one that provided rides to medical appointments for the elderly and disabled.

Jessica Pierce, Faith in Action coordinator with Catholic Charities, says they were left scrambling to fill the void and were not given lists either of the Red Cross’s clients or volunteers.

I don’t know if they actually reached out to anyone to let them know. […] When you called the (chapter) number, it was disconnected…it just happened very abruptly.

Overall, New York State has seen its Red Cross chapters cut from 35 in 2008 to 10 in 2015. Among the chapters lost is the one in the village of Dansville, New York, where Clara Barton founded the historic first local chapter of the American Red Cross in 1881.

Diane Caves, who is the deputy director of emergency management in a 26-county region, says that while there may be little visible reduction in volunteers for major disasters, she sees a real difference in responses to the day-to-day work of dealing with smaller crises like house fires.

“The response time is enormous, compared to what it used to be,” Caves said. “When we had a local Red Cross, it was within a half hour. Now it’s usually anywhere from an hour to two hours.”

“We had a strong volunteer base locally,” Caves said. “When they closed our local Red Cross, there was a disconnect. They lost a lot of the local volunteerism for whatever reason…it was very quick. It was abrupt and very unexpected. That tore apart some relationships. There were some hard feelings.”—Ruth McCambridge