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Good Works encore

From disasters to blood drives

Volunteers have fueled Red Cross chapter’s efforts for 100 years by

Kara Norman


ost people know the American Red Cross for its blood drives and disaster relief around the world, but not everyone is aware that nearly all of the people working on those efforts are volunteers. The Southwest Michigan chapter of the Red Cross, which serves Kalamazoo County and eight surrounding counties, currently has just 12 paid staff members, meaning that 98 percent of the organization’s work is accomplished by its 470 volunteers. In October, the chapter will mark its 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we interviewed a few of those volunteers, people drawn to the Red Cross’ various missions for pretty much the same reason: to help people whenever and however they can.

Nancy and Jim Kowalski


It’s mid-May, and retired Kalamazoo residents, American Red Cross volunteers and high school sweethearts Nancy and Jim Kowalski have spent the past two days not out walking their two golden retrievers or catching up on sleep, but responding to a plane crash — a simulated one, that is. The Kowalskis, who have volunteered for the American Red Cross of Southwest Michigan since 2004, were participating in a plane crash response drill with county fire departments at the Kalamazoo/ Battle Creek International Airport. The Kowalskis, who are prepared to respond to emergencies in the nine counties served by the area chapter, also work on the national level, serving on disaster-relief trips that last two weeks at a time.

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Last year the Kowalskis responded to six national disasters: in South Carolina, Missouri, Iowa and North Carolina and twice in Louisiana. But before any of those deployment hours were counted, Nancy had already served 1,000 hours and Jim 800 hours last year working for the local chapter. Nancy, 68, retired from Bank of America in 2013, and Jim, 69, retired after working as a repair splicer for Michigan Bell and AT&T. In the recent airport exercise Nancy served as assistant director of operations and Jim did “canteening,” feeding and hydrating first responders on the scene. “Canteen captain is one of my roles here,” Jim says with some mirth. For the simulation, his team worked from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., serving 100 cups of coffee, “iceddown” water and Gatorade, and doughnuts and other snacks to those on site. Nancy and Jim share the role of Disaster Action Team (DAT) captain for Kalamazoo County. DAT captains lead responses to local residential emergencies like fires, working with a body of volunteers to coordinate everything from temporary emergency shelter, food and clothing to replacement medication and emotional support for victims. When deployed on a national disaster, the Kowalskis drive an emergency response vehicle, or ERV, a truck shaped like an ambulance that has the capacity to dispense 300 hot meals to people stranded Above: Jim Kowalski mans the canteen during a recent Red Cross disaster drill. Photo: Sam Zomer. Below: Volunteers John Gagen and Tom Erdmann before they head to Missouri to give assistance during floods in April.

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